The wind-swept, desolate archipelago that hosts the mythical town of Ushuaia, the end of the road for many a weary travellers' long journeys through the American continent. Land of the Fire - divided from mainland South America by the Strait of Magellan, it is the last piece of fragmented land before Antarctica.
So we're in Punta Arenas, right? We're there, we've seen the city, we have a plane ticket for a flight back to Santiago (capital of Chile, 2200km to the north) and four days to spare. We're a mere 1400km off the coast of Antarctica and wondering how to best spend our last moments of a great journey.
The answer jumps right out at us, as these things usually do. Four cyclists on Long Haul Truckers (same model as our bikes) turn up at the Hostal Indepedencia where we're staying. "The Ozzie Girls" (Megs & Jules) and Chris & Jako, all of who we had met before, some on the Carretera Austral, some as far back as the extreme Lagoon Route that connects San Pedro de Atacama to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. They're heading South, to Ushuaia and tell us about a King Penguin colony that, remarkably, has established itself on the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. I.e. a mere 100km or so ride from Punta Arenas. Totally within our reach.
We don't need any convincing - we'll make the best out of these last days! We decide to follow them South till the penguin colony, and then hurry back to Punta Arenas to catch our plane. In the undying words of Walter Sobchak, the beauty of this plan is its simplicity.
Thus Team Surly is assembled (we all ride Surly bicycles, so thought it would be an appropriate name), and we all trot off to the port to catch the ferry that will take us across the Strait of Magellan onto Porvenir, the largest (only?) town in the Chilean half of Tierra del Fuego.
Team Surly landing on Tierra del Fuego:
We quickly ride through Porvenir, picking up some last-minute supplies for the road ahead and take the south-easternly road that keeps us close to the rough, barren and beautiful coast.
Ping breaks the "5000km on the saddle" mark and is quite pleased with herself:
Social cycling is a funny thing. We ride pretty much constantly and take the opportunity to chat (also constantly) while doing so. We can get away with it because we're heading East, which means we have the wind on our tails, which means that riding the gravel road that's called Y-71 is a piece of cake.
Lunch break on the road under a beautiful sky. I am impressed by the quantity of food (mostly sugar) our companions consume. Who knew we would be beaten at our own game?
We push on for most of the day, until we come to something that looks like a camping opportunity that must not be overlooked. We're been riding through barren lands today - no trees or dramatic cliffs of any kind to protect us from the wind. When you're on the bike and going in the right direction that's fine, but when you want to relax and cook, the wind can be a major hassle. Not to mention that winds in this region can tear your tent to shreds if you don't protect it adequately.
But here are a couple of trees that will provide some sort of protection and the opportunity is too good to be missed. So we camp.
Now, there's a small problem. We're running low on water. For some reason I thought that Tierra del Fuego would be this lush land full of rivers, but all streams we've seen are dry - probably because of the season. We have enough water to drink, but not enough to cook with. Chris and Jako are in a similar state.
So Chris and I puff up our chests, round up our largest water bags (a good 10Lt each) and announce to "the women" that "the men" will go out in search of water.
What a noble thing to do, right? (it also conveniently means we're off setting-up-camp duty)
So off we ride, Chris and I, on our bikes, heading further East, thinking that surely we should find water any minute now, with the sun already lowering towards the West, our legs already tired from a day's riding, our bellies empty and the knowledge that every pedal stroke we take, puts another one between us and the Team Surly camp.
I'm the first one to cry "water! water!" when I spot something shining in the distance, a good 100m to the right of the road. I park my bike, take my water bag and start jumping over fences to reach what appears to be a natural puddle.
Chris joins me a few seconds later, takes one look at the puddle and says "This is a pool of guanaco pee".
I'm slightly hurt by his harsh assessment of the water source I identified, but, unwavering, go on to try to convince him that our magical LifeSaver bottle (our water filter/purifier) can convert even Guanaco Pee to Evian.
For some reason Chris is unconvinced, so we turn back, jump on the bikes, and ride on.
A few miles down the road we find a much better source of water:
Now, I know what you're thinking, but this drainage thing is completely kosher - it's not, I repeat *NOT* a sewage drain. Just a hole under the road to help the water streaming down the other end of the road make it across without sweeping the road over. You just can't tell from the photo.
So the stream is also dry, but luckily a small pool of water remains. We collect a good 20 litres of it and, our bikes heavy with water, take the road back to Camp Surly.
Back at the camp we enter victorious, follow Jules' advice to quickly hide the dodgy-looking waterbags and immediately start filtering the stuff with our LifeSaver bottle, which, bless it, is starting to act up and is extremely difficult to pump. This is probably an indication of the filter having clogged and not doing its work, but I decide to keep that little detail to myself.
After filtering all water (which takes bloody ages with the LifeSaver bottle anyway, let alone with a malfunctioning one!) and putting it into "clean" containers, we also boil our cooking water, and have a lovely dinner.
After an uneventful night, we pack up and hit the road again. By 8am we're riding! (the compromises of social cycling...)
Today we feel the wind a bit more, particularly because our route turns South at the junction with the Y85, towards the penguin colony.
As a reminder of just how windy it usually is around here:
For some reason Ping and I reach the intersection a few minutes before everyone else, so we're delighted to notice a guanaco grazing nearby.
Most of these animals run in the opposite direction when they see humans, but this particular camelid is quite sociable.
It appears to take an interest in us, and even while we make no move towards it, it starts approaching us.
I expect it to get scared and bolt away at any moment now, so I frantically take photos of it, with every one thinking "hah, this is the closest one I got", and then "hah, this is a closer one", "closer", "closer..."
The guanaco reaches the road and starts walking straight at us, with a dignified, no-nonsense approach that is elegantly paced and very firm. I begin wondering what I'll do if it charges, or does anything crazy of the sort!
The result is that this Guanaco ends up almost eating our camera, before we both freak out, jump back, and the camelid gallops away!
Now our compact camera only has a 3x zoom, so you can imagine how close that animal got!
After assuming a safe distance, the camelid allowed the rest of team Surly (who promptly arrived after our little close encounter) to take its picture...
before duly charging them, which resulted in hilarious screams and cyclists running in all directions. Very amusing to watch from a distance indeed!
After that exciting encounter we turn South, taking the road that would lead us through Onaisin (which we thought was a village, but ends up being a ghost farm with a few scattered dilapidated structures) to Bahia Inutil, the "useless bay", named as harshly as that because of the winds that made it impossible for vessels to leave it once they had entered it.
We reach Parque Pinguino del Rey (map) and marvel at the penguins who mostly stand/sit/lie there and do their thing while we watch from a safe distance. (okay, two of them were procreating in a rather funny manner)
When we are ready to leave the penguins, we bid farewell to our trusty travel companions. This is the last photo of Team Surly, before Ping and I turn back NW, and the rest of the team carry on south towards Ushuaia:
Did I say North West? I did... This means we head straight into the wind, taking the lonely way back to Porvenir.
We manage to get back at our little patch of trees from last night (which we duly map for the benefit of other travellers), since we have found absolutely nothing else to protect us from the wind. We are exhausted, so without further ado eat and go to bed early, because we know the next day is going to be much more of that... more like 60km of riding against the wind!
The next day comes, we pack up quickly and start pushing the pedals against the wind, making a difficult westward slog. It's hard work, and the sparse traffic (we've been passed by less than five vehicles the whole day) is not heartening...
We stop for a snack rest and take stock. We've done 30km in 7 hours.
At this pace, assuming we won't run out of energy, we'll reach Porvenir late at night, having ridden for a solid 14 hours today... we've never done anything like this before, and don't intend to make this our last ride in South America.
Luck and the kindness of strangers once more come to our aid, and out of nowhere comes a red pickup truck with two people in it. Without saying much, they stop and pick us up. The last 30km to Porvenir are a piece of cake and I can't help laughing as the engine powers the vehicle against the wind, saying to myself "wow, look at those hills go"!
After heartily thanking our saviours we ride around Porvenir to figure out where we can sleep tonight. There is no ferry till the next day, so we can only wait. We ride around town, not finding anything that offers any shelter from the wind and privacy from prying eyes in the same time. I toy with the idea of camping in the communal playground, but it's a bit too impolite even for me.
For some reason I think that knocking on the door of the local golf club may help. You see, they surely have lots of grassy fields there, and we have a tent - the perfect match! I knock on the door of the mansion house that seems to be the main structure of this golf club... and it turns out it's a private residence - the old home of a Croatian family to be precise, and Danilo, who doesn't understand what on Earth two dirty cyclists are doing trying to talk in broken Spanish about golf clubs at his doorstep, switches to fluent English before inviting us to camp at his garden.
It's not too bad... :-)
In fact, it's probably the perfect camping spot!
Danilo is there for a break from the city - this is his holiday, and he's alone, with all phones off, in his old family home. We feel we're trespassing slightly, but he seems pleased enough to have us there and even invites us in to use the kitchen.
We end up having an absolutely lovely dinner there, leaving our funny-looking small/foldable/light cooking utensils for his proper cooking gear. Sipping wine, chatting about the world, getting to meet this intriguing stranger who so kindly took us in, I can barely believe how many emotions we've been through in a single day today...
(and I can't help but laugh out loud and ask for Danilo's permission to take a photo of this hilarious street sign - which apparently is an actual, sign!)
We spend our last night in the tent, warmed by Danilo's hospitality, protected from the wind by his home's fences, being excited but also slightly sad. This was it. No more cycling. No more camping. The beautiful part of a beautiful journey is over. Now we only have the donkey work of getting back to Europe remaining...
The next morning we greet Danilo and hop on the ferry back to Punta Arenas:
We stay in Hostal Independencia once more and get a room which quickly looks as if an explosion has happened. All of our stuff has to be taken out of its usual places (i.e. the precise location in our panniers reserved for everything for the past 5 months) and re-packaged in our two backpacks, which will be our checked luggage for the loooong flights home.
I spend a good 4 hours taking my bike apart, since the national airline we use to fly from Punta Arenas to Santiago does not accept bikes in plastic bags. We had left the bike boxes in the Independencia before heading off to see the penguins, and now struggle to make the Surlys fit. But fit they do, and after hours and hours we have the bikes relatively neatly packed in two boxes. Here's my bike before stuffing it in the box:
Ping's bike fits in the box much easier than my bike (smaller frame, you see):
We go to bed exhausted and feeling a bit weird. We're all packed. Our bikes are packed. Our panniers are packed. We can only leave this place on our own two feet, not riding as we're used to. What a strange feeling!
The taxi to the airport arrives on the dot the next day - I'm glad to realise our broken Spanish did the trick and we didn't agree for a lift for next month! We load everything in the van, greet our host at the Independencia and drive to Punta Arenas airport... only to realise when we get there that the tent is nowhere to be found.
&%!*?#!!! It's a half-hour drive back to the hostel, and our plane leaves in less than two hours. I leave Ping with all our stuff, jump in the first taxi I find and say something like "to Avenida Independencia - and fast!" Luckily the taxi driver is a lovely chap who appreciates the urgency of the situation so he steps on it, we get back to the hostel, I see the tent neatly packed, resting against a tree in the hostel's front yard, without a word I grab it and jump back in the taxi and we zoom back to the airport.
After having spent one hour in that cab and having exhausted my Spanish vocabulary, we have discussed everything with the driver from the IMF to his daughter's football career and I'm quite relaxed. Not for long. I get to the check-in desk to find Ping exasperated, fighting with the airline people.
You see, we bought our Sky Airline tickets from the Sky Airline office in Puerto Aysen more than a month ago. We bought a flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago and explained we would take the bikes with us. The agent told us it would cost about 60.000 CLP for the excess luggage.
Now, in Punta Arenas airport, with the plane about to start boarding, the check-in people would not take the bikes unless we paid them an extortionate 150.000 CLP (I don't remember the exact amount, but I remember it was more than double of the original amount). They told us the price we got given in Puerto Aysen was for excess luggage from Puerto Aysen to Santiago. Not from Punta Arenas, which was more than 1000km south of Puerto Aysen...
I am livid, but firm. I tell them there is no way we're paying what they're asking for. The mistake was of their agent, so not our problem. They try various lies (including that "the system does not allow us to change the rate" - as usual blaming the computers for a human failure...) and after a while have to call the supervisor's supervisor who very calmly asks us what the story is, we tell him, he sais "okay, how much are you willing to pay?", I tell him 60.000, and with a flick of his fingers the checkin ladies magically change the rate "on the system" and accept our bikes for 60.000 pesos.
Thus starts our return to "civilization"...
I'm already thinking: "Are we sure we want to do this?" But I don't say a thing.
We reach Santiago airport and receive all of our stuff in one piece... 6 month worth of belongings and two vehicles in two boxes, two backpacks and two panniers:
We have a day to kill in Santiago airport before our flight to London - but we get to the airport late enough that we can't get into town and use the hotel we have booked. So we just let it be and decide to overnight at the airport.
We put the bikes back together, as we've checked that transporting them in their plastic bags is fine with the airline we're using for the long Santiago -> New York -> London flight, and I'd rather not have to do this when we get back to London late at night, to be able to ride back home!
After a luxurious dinner at the airport...
...we find a nice quiet place for a kip. Okay, we spend the night there. I sleep admirably well!
The following morning we go to the American Airlines check-in nice and early, queue for about 45' and are told our flight is actually operated by LAN airlines. Fine.
We rush to the LAN airlines check-in as time is getting tight and there's a queue there as well, but we make it to the check-in agent in time. Everything seems to go fine, and they don't bat an eyelid when we pass them the bicycles for taking in the hold.
I am then asked to sign a couple of little bits of sticky paper.
"What is this for?" I ask.
"Nothing, just for the luggage" check-in girl says.
"Yes but what am I signing? What's this checkmark here?" I insist.
"Oh, that just says the luggage is not properly packaged".
It turns out I've almost been tricked into signing an insurance waiver for our bikes. A "nothing", that absolves LAN airlines of all responsibility if our bikes get to the other end in many little pieces...
Once more I am livid. I show them proof that the ticket we bought allowed us to carry bikes fully assembled in plastic bags. They say they understand and are very sorry, but these are the rules. I say I don't give a toss and the bikes are not flying uninsured. The check-in girl calls her supervisor who assures us he's very sorry, I assure him I'm not flying without the bikes, and the bikes are not flying without insurance, and I AM FLYING TODAY, a small standoff with more supervisors ensues in which smiles of otherwise pleasant people disappear in alarming rates...and then they say "fine" and take in the bikes without signatures, waivers and the sort.
After that, we have a pretty uneventful flight across the Americas, all the way to New York - with Ping having a bit too much fun with the in-flight entertainment system...
At JFK we have to take all of our luggage (and bikes!) out and carry it and then re-check it in (why?), go through immigration (what on Earth for?!) and then literally run to catch our connecting flight to London:
Clouds over the Atlantic:
This little gem reminds me of a Spectator article by Rod Liddle I read recently on how citizens have become the slaves of all sorts of untrained and unqualified authority figures. How can it be a FEDERAL requirement to "comply with all instructions" of the crew of a private airline? Surely that's a bit too broad!
We land at Heathrow, where another unpleasant surprise awaits. Our bike bags have been slashed by the TSA and our fuel bottles (even though they were completely dry) have been stolen impounded. To our surprise, we realise the TSA geniuses have also chucked the fuel pump that was attached to one of the bottles. They've also damaged the BikeBuddy system that holds the bottles in place on the bike frame. In a final stroke of making the world a safer place, they have also stolen our No.14 wrench. The damn wrench I carried for 5 months, just to be able to put the pedals back on the bikes in Heathrow. The damn wrench I carried up and down mountains and across deserts, only to have it nicked by the TSA a few hours before we needed it. Argh!
We complain to the American Airlines office in Heathrow, only to be told "this happens all the time" and "not much we can do". We're given a photocopied piece of paper with an email address for complaints. Needless to say, we will spend hours and hours over the following months gathering all documentation, proofs of purchase, proofs of travel, proof we exist etc, never to get anything back from the TSA. Statutory theft of our property. Behaviour like this makes people not want to travel to the USA.
So we ask around (there's not too many people, it is almost midnight after all!) and luckily find a technical crew who were fixing stuff around the airport. We borrow a wrench from them and get the pedals back on the bikes. Inflate the tyres, re-package everything in the panniers, and off we go to catch the very last train from Heathrow to Paddington.
We get out of Paddington and onto the street after midnight. After a long flight and lots of anger and disappointment (to be honest, our trip back home was a potpourri of deception and insulting treatment from both corporations and governmental organisations), it's great to hop back on the bikes and ride the final 15km home.
The hills that usually make the ride from downtown to our neighbourhood seem to have vanished. We sublimely roll through sleepy London, scratching our heads, saying to each other "I'm sure this hill used to be much steeper than this...". It all feels too easy.
And with that, the Cycling Chile trip is over.
It's difficult to believe. It's been even more difficult to adjust. Thank you for sticking with us. Writing for you has made this trip richer and more meaningful for us.
Where has the time gone? We sadly no longer have the time to savour each day as we did during our travels and suddenly weeks and months fly by as we rush around our busy daily lives.
Yes, this IS sent out to deliberately confuse you - yes, we HAVE been back home now for six months - and yes, we really ARE that behind in the cataloguing of our adventures. It's lovely looking at the photos again though and re-living the experiences. Here we have a few more bits to share...
At the end of the last blog we arrive in El Chalten, Argentina. Self-professed to be the "walking capital of Argentina". With the rest of our companions from the previous couple of days - the O'Higgins to Argentina crossing - we choose one of the campsites to rest for a little while. Walking around the very tiny town, it is overflowing with tourists and we feel quite ill-at-ease after the relative seclusion of cycling on the Carretera Austral for the previous month or so and certainly the fairly solitary existence for pretty much the rest of the trip. None of that. El Chalten is THE place to be. Particularly as the near by Chilean attraction of Torres del Paine has recently undergone a disastrous forest fire and is not yet fully open - in fact I think some parts are still burning. (This is an interesting story in itself - one of two major attractions of Chile, huge forest fire... the government took 4 days to mobilise forces to help to control the fire... hmmmm...)
Anyway. A lot of people here. The campsite is jam-packed. Tents side-by-side in every available spot. I feel more than a little claustrophobic despite the fantastic scenery and the surrounding scenery being just wide-open spaces. Alex and I quickly latch onto a 3-day circular walk into the backwaters - in an attempt to escape the crowd - hoping that most people will likely do day drips and not bother with the whole tent shennanigans on their backs for 3 days.
We reach a beautiful lake fed from glaciers a few hours into the trek - way above El Chalten. The further we are from the village, the less people we see. Hooray! We have escaped! The view is stunning. I've only ever seen that shade of blue in glacial lakes.
We wander on to the approved campsite...to find a ge-zillion tents! Side by side with a few trees peppered amongst the rows.
Crazy. Oh well. Still less people than the village down below.
We fill our water bottles directly from the glacial rivers and don't bother with filtering for now. There are strict rules of how far you must be from the river to cook/wash/clean etc, to avoid contamination - we hope that everyone obeys!
We continue along the walk and eventually reach another view point which is along a slightly rocky path - we see some fairly elderly people struggling up with walking sticks and marvel at what people can do when they're determined enough. Their reward is this gorgeous view:
I do like a good glacier...
We return to basecamp feeling fairly proud of our three-day hike, to find Bernard, our 50-something friend from the crossing from a few days back, still at the campsite. We greet him and proudly tell him that we're just back from the 3 day hike, to which he replies - "Oh yes, beautiful views. I did that in one day."
"No, no, we mean the three day circular route?"
"Yes, it took me 9 hours, and I was pretty tired by the end of it."
We slink off quietly to our tent and resolve never to speak to anyone else again about that walk.
Luckily to take our mind off matters, we see that a whole group of cyclists have arrived at the campsite. John, Cathy, Andi, Anita who we spent New Years with in Cochrane, Meg and Jules - we met actually a couple of months back in Bolivia (can't escape from anyone in this game...) - and Chris and Jako - a "new couple" - i.e. we've not met them before - who happen to have the same tent AND same bikes as us. And quite a few others that we met before Christmas on the Carretera. We spend a very jolly few hours catching up before going to bed. Initially worried about too much jollity and a singing guitarist serenading the entire campsite, we are actually woken up by the wind instead...
Hmmm...I don't sleep too well - a bit worried that the tent was going to fly off with me in it!
After some marvelling at the local fauna (in the campsite)
...we leave El Chalten behind, heading South. The view is fantastic behind us. I keep looking into my rear-view mirror at the famous Fitz Roy mountains and marvel at the scenery. Luckily the road is not busy and I can weave about whilst looking.
When I can finally concentrate on the road again, I look around and find that the surrounding scenery is completely different from that of the Carretera Austral, only a few kilometres up the road on the Chilean side. This, then, is the Argentian Pampa. Bare. Empty. Dry. Vast landscapes. We can see for miles into the distance. Very flat.
We have been warned about the wind in the Pampa...
Having spoken to the other cyclists, we know to expect a fantastic tailwind for about 90km. We didn’t really understand HOW fantastic until we get on the bikes. Look at the top left number – no pedalling...speeding up to 32km/hr.
A little impromptu interview along the road – the Ruta 40 – the only road south towards the end of the continent.
We know that there are other cyclists in front and behind us. It’s a big happy cycling community whereby messages are passed along the road
“Have you seen X and Y? They’re two Australian girls who cycled down from Alaska.”
“Say hi to A and B! They’re about a day behind us!”
“Hey, if you pick up a collapsible stool under bridge number 3 can you pass it along to C and D who are going to catch up with us tomorrow?! I forgot it whilst packing up!”
We catch up with Andi and Anita (who were only an hour ahead) whilst they are having a lunch break. They kindly take a photo of us and we go merrily on our way.
90km fly by in a flash – 3 hours later we are at the junction. THE junction. This is the junction heading west towards our next destination – El Calafate. Unfortunately also where we turn into head wind. Yes, the same wind that sent us 90km in 3 hours.
Five seconds later my speedometer goes from 30km/hr to 5km/hr. I’m pedalling as hard as I can but it’s no use. Five minutes later Andi and Anita catch up with us and we wonder if it’s too early to camp!! We decide that it is really and we should make a little more effort to get there – only 30km left after all!
We struggle valiantly on. I feel like the chicken that they throw into the wind tunnel to test the airplane propellers (useful knowledge you pick up, having aeronautical engineers as flatmates at university – it’s ok, apparently the chicken was already frozen).
We start to look out for shelter though as this wind is really getting a bit silly. However, this IS the Argentinian Pampa, and there really is not much protection. The bushes are all too small to hide behind. Eventually Andi and Anita find a drainage hole wide enough to fit a person, tall enough to crawl in. They decide to “free camp” in the drain. Alex and I carry on, hoping against hope that either there’s a bigger hole further down, or we might reach the campsite that we heard about.
Dramatic right turn sign, just before we camp for the night
We see a little clump of trees about 5km further down the road (only 45min of pedalling) and decide to head for that. Luckily it provides really good shelter, and we have a quiet night afterall.
2nd tree patch along the road, where we stay out of the wind.
The next day we all arrive at the single campsite in El Calafate, to find more cyclists already there. It’s a jolly catch up as we marvel at the strength of the wind, and swap details about the best supermarkets and plans for sightseeing. John and Cathy are very organised and sort out a hired car for seven of us for the next day. We plan to go and see the huge Perito Moreno Glacier, one of only 3 glaciers in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares which are not retreating in our "globally warm environment".
It’s a strange feeling getting into a car. We’re having a day out from the biking, with our new biking friends. The road speeds by in a car – it’s too fast because I can’t see everything that I want to look at.
We reach the glacier too early by 3 minutes. The others wanted to be the first ones at the glacier – leaving at 6am was a struggle (remember how we normally are ready to set off at about 11?). The authorities watch us from the hut for the full 3 minutes before lifting the barrier to let us through.
We see our first glimpse of the glacier from a distance. Wow. It looks incredible. We know that it’s 30km in length, about 60m high from the water, and 5km wide. The numbers don’t make an impact though. Being there does. It’s an incredibly humbling experience to stand in front of this magnificent structure.
It is also constantly moving and changing. We witness a big splash as part of the glacier breaks off and an iceberg is formed. All the boys are super-excited and wait with their fingers on the button to film the next bit falling off. Nature does not perform to demand however and we are left waiting for a long time.
We spend most of the day in front of the glacier, walking around the coast seeing it from different angles. We feel secure in the knowledge that even when we go to the toilet, the authorities are looking out for our safety.
Perito glacier from side:
Finally it’s time to go. As we leave we try to capture just how huge the glacier is by photographing a visitors ferry sailing right up to the face of it. You may be able to see a small black dot about half way along the horizontal distance of the water in front of the glacier. That’s it!
We spend another lazy day in El Calafate and then it’s time to leave Argentina. Cycling back the way we came means tailwind again for a few kilometres before we reach the borders with Chile again. The Chileanos are much stricter with what we can carry in, food-wise. We hold our breath but the Nutella is safe. The honey, however, is left behind to benefit the customs officers.
Back in Chile, our 10 day sojourn in Argentina has been short but full of adventure. We arrive in Puerto Natales knowing that this is really our last leg of the journey. We take the bus to Punta Arenas where we need to start thinking about packing up our bikes to fly back to Santiago, and then London. It’s a sad day as we wander around Punta Arenas looking for a bike shop which has big enough boxes for our bikes. We strike gold at one shop and no doubt look a bit of a sight carrying these two bike boxes back to the hostel. Our time in South America is nearly over.
Episode XIV: Crossing to Argentina, the stylish way
So here we are, in Villa O'Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral. All this vibration has made a number of screws from our panniers and racks to loosen up. Some of them we don't notice in time and therefore lose. The end result is that we have depleted our stock of spare screws and are asking around Villa O'Higgins for anywhere we might be able to buy some. The answer is a resounding "no", but, as it happens in this part of the world, a rather touching (if not very effective) "solution" appears out of thin air: One of the customers of the shop where we had asked for screws overhears us, and later in the afternoon turn up at our campsite and gives us some screws from old bikes he had! Doesn't fit our bikes, full of rust, odd sizes - but still a touching gesture. People really go out of their way to help us here - warms up one's heart.
We do some research as to how to proceed from here and confirm that there is a boat across the lake (Lago O'Higgins), which takes one to a path, which should be rideable, which takes one to the border, after which you're in Argentina and then you get another boat, cross another lake (Lago Del Desierto) and then you're on regular roads again and can ride on.
This all sounded like a smashing idea at the time, so we thought we'd go for it. Luckily the boat company accepts credit card, as the tickets are expensive, there's no ATM in town and we only have limited cash on us - as Ping puts it, "Yay - more cash for cereal!"
We ride the last 8km from Villa O'Higging to the lake at some ungodly hour (the boat leaves at 8am) and board the vessel.
There we meet Micha and Sarah, the German couple we had met almost 1,000km back north, and Bernard, a Swiss gentleman who is touring Patagonia solo for 3 months. We make a nice neat pile of our luggage on board
..which is then unfortunately scurried away in the hold. So naturally I become increasingly grumpy - I don't like it when people deprive me of my breakfast!!
Ping is feeling a bit stressed about cycling with the others. We had heard this was a demanding stretch, and we had never travelled with these people. What if they are too fast? What if they are too slow? What if their feet smell?
The boat drops us off on the other end of the lake and we start the struggle uphill. It's quite gravelly/rocky and, save for Micha who seems to really know what he's doing on a bike, the rest of us push a good chunk of the way.
This is the customs office where we get our exit stamp from Chile. The carabineros look at my passport and say "Greece?! We've never seen a Greek before!" A sad state of affairs for my compatriots who generally don't have the luxury to travel like this.
By this point all walkers who disembarked from the same boat with us have already caught up and are overtaking us at an embarrassing rate. We are slower because we have to push the bikes all the time and stop for breaks, while the walkers just carry on.
My bike and the mountains - rough but beautiful:
Some people think it's funny that we find a shoe in the woods... Notably Ping laughs her head off and makes me tell the group the story of the dog stealing my shoe in San Pedro de Atacama. Who knows, perhaps another one-shoed cyclist is at large. I feel for them.
As the trail carries on I can't help but think how crappy the road is, how difficult it is, how little Chilenos seem to bother with maintenance... Here, a representative bridge on the Chilean side of the border.
We even have to drag the bikes under a wire fence - great trail, that! I'm constantly bitching (internally) and thinking that we'll reach "civilisation" once we step into Argentina.
Lots of uphill, lots of pushing, while the horse flies (tabanos) are feasting on us. I'm really fed up with this and want to get to Argentina NOW.
...so I'm exuberant when we finally reach the border and leave Chile behind!
We enter Argentina full of certainty that conditions will be far better. How could they not be?
We quickly come to realise that things are not quite that rosy. Ping takes 3 tumbles in the first 10 metres in Argentina. Perhaps because the trail has turned into a singletrack that would be lovely on a full-suspension mountain bike, but is quite a different story on our rigid, loaded, fat touring bikes.
The trail gets a bit tight, to the point where my front panniers are too wide for it and the bike gets stuck:
I soon eat my thoughts and find myself wishing we had some Chilean bridge infrastructure around here...
The trail becomes difficult to find in the woods...
...but we push on, onwards through the forest:
Luckily this is the dry season so there isn't much mud.
Okay, some of the bridges get slightly ridiculous and we have to carry the panniers separately from the bikes:
The whole trail becomes a rut, and we scrape the sides, trying to push our bikes through...
The bridges are not getting all that much better:
...and the final descent is a deep, steep, narrow, punishing rut which exhausts us with the acrobatics it requires to get the bikes through:
We take a quick dip in the freezing cold lake and then cook some dinner. We sit down on the grass, holding our warm pans, eating hot food, looking at the lake and the mountains in the distance. We're all a barrel of laughs - telling stories from our travels and for some reason dissing CONAF and their work. Almost like school kids cracking pranks at the teacher, after they're safely out of class.
Night falls quite quickly after that, and we collapse in our tents.
The next morning is rather leisurely as we have nothing to do but wait for the 11:30 boat that will take us to the south end of the lake. Walkers who have just hiked along the east side of the lake (in the opposite direction) confirm that taking the boat is the smart thing to do, as it was difficult even to walk it. I'm glad we didn't attempt it with the bikes!
Here's the whole border crossing gang (except for me behind the camera), all smiles on our small boat crossing Lago del Desierto:
We made it! On the other end of the lake is a rather luxurious unpaved road. We cycle the final 20-or-so KM to El Chalten with few issues (some panniers falling off due to vibration working the screws loose, a bit of rain, nothing too serious really) and camp in the least crowded campsite we can find. Time to take a couple of hard-earned days off to relax.
PS: A few weeks later we met Jako and Chris, who did the exact same crossing a few days after we did. Jako thought it was crazy they were pushing their bikes up and down mountains through singletracks... then REALLY crazy when the snow and hail started. But before she could say anything, others in their group excitedly shared just how "cool" it all was... so it became "cool"! Companionship (and peer pressure) helps!
After recuperating in Cochrane's lovely central campsite, we continue South on the Carretera Austral. There is no question the rest of the way will be unpaved - the only question is how bad the road surface will be and how we will handle it.
It's the 1st day of 2012 and the sun is shining. The clouds are giving the blue sky a surreal quality. We've never seen quite such clouds anywhere else.
We follow the road south, camping on the side of the road as usual. It's an easy routine we're now used to. We've left Cochrane well stocked - carrying food for at least 4 days. Enough to sustain us until we reach Caleta Tortel, the next village on the map.
Luckily we don't need to carry much water as we are next to big rivers and lakes all the time, so we can always pickup fresh water to drink, wash and cook with.
Caleta Tortel is a village that has been recommended to us by other cyclists as worthwhile to visit. Even though it's 20km away from the Carretera Austral itself, the weather is good and we feel strong and not in a particular rush, so we decide to do the 40km round trip. Luckily the road is not too bad, and mostly flat:
We reach the village in good time and realise we can't take our bikes to the camp site - we have to carry everything we'll need on our backs. We store the bikes in a shack where the road ends, make our backpacks with the tent, sleeping equipment, food, cooking stuff, clothes etc and start walking to the camp site, which is on the opposite end of the village.
We enjoy walking around the village on its characteristic wooden walkways. There are no roads or paths in Caleta Tortel. If you need to get anywhere, you'll do it along the wooden walkways.
Now, walking on those things is fun and all, but we have been walking for 40' (granted, taking breaks, taking photos, shopping for supplies etc) and we are still nowhere near the camp site!
We finally get there after an hour's walk on wooden platforms, going up and down steps all the time, following the coastline as there aren't many signs to the camp site... did I mention I'm carrying 100Lt of stuff on my back and Ping 65Lt? I mean, we were not psyched up for a trek...
At the campsite it transpires that there are no facilities. None. Zilch. No water. No loos. Nada. Just a fire pit and a wooden table. And, as usual, nobody else around.
So we get busy running our usual errands - Ping collects firewood (one of her favourite hobbies) and I collect water from the nearby opaque, pale green river and silently hope our water purification system lives up to its marketing hype.
Soon enough we get the fire going, when we receive an unlikely batch of visitors. A herd of cows!
(Ping takes over...)
Now we don't mind cows. In fact, I confess to quite liking the look of moos. But have you ever heard them eat?! I mean, talk about table manners...they chomp very loudly. VERY. The bull also seems to have an itch as he head butts the ground ferociously, scratch scratch scratch, digging away, creating a small crater of a hole about 5m away from our tent.
Chomp chomp chomp...quite amusing at first, but not quite so amusing at 5am in the dark...I give up trying to sleep as the day dawns and I panic, hearing the chomping closer and closer until I was sure one was going to eat us up in one huge gobble. Alex continues to sleep as I emerge from the tent, fully ready to defend our stronghold - the cows scatter alarmingly quickly - the bull leaps over a metre high fence...actually gets stuck half way and it takes a little scrabbling to get over. All this action so early in the morning makes me hungry...
We stock up on groceries on the 2km hike back to our bikes...
...passing some serious Health and Safety concerns on our way back.
Looks like this walkway needs constant maintenance. We figure that if we ever needed a wooden house, the Caleta Tortelians would be the best carpenters in the world to build it.
We re-pack our panniers and bump along our way back towards the main Carretera...
One thing we have forgotten to mention is that our screws are coming loose.
Who's that making smart comments at the back?
What we mean is that the screws on our BIKES and PANNIERS are becoming loose. The constant vibration of the bumpy road has somehow loosened everything so that one of my back panniers actually manages to fall off whilst I'm riding. The rear rack system is also working its way off the bike. On one single day I manage to lose three screws and Alex one (highly representative, I know), cleaning us out of spares completely. When we ask around in Caleta Tortel for nuts and screws, we find to our astonishment that there isn't one to be found in the entire town, and we are advised to keep cycling on to the next town, only 150km away! I guess not much use for screws in a wooden town - even the fire department is housed in wood...one wonders...
On we go.
A little test for you all. Have a careful look at this...
Are we going uphill or downhill??
Luckily we are not speeding by in a car and have time to stop and have a think about it to prepare ourselves for what is coming ahead.
Uphill. As always. We meet a pair of hikers from the UK, who embarrassingly walk up faster than we cycle. We pretend to be slow only because we are taking in the magnificent view around us. Cycling hard during a downhill part we finally catch up and keep pedalling hard to stay ahead.
Finally we reach Puerto Yungay where this section of the road ends and we must take a ferry to the next part, just missing the final ferry of the day. We expect to see a campsite, shops to stock up, something....Nope. Nothing. There are two houses. Public toilets. One cafe doubling as a shop for sweets and biscuits. Oh well, tea and cakes then!
We are advised to camp on the narrow strip of beach to wait for the ferry the next day.
Feeling just a tad stinky by now I jump into the lake to at least rid myself of the top layer of dirt and sweat...
Squeals come from the water as I discover how cold it is. The Mediterranean guy I'm with declines the cold wash and merrily stinks away next to me for the rest of the evening, and beyond.
We are joined by two motorcyclists at our campsite also waiting for the ferry. Luiz is an economics teacher in Brazil and Roberto a businessman in tourism in Mexico. We talk about the state of the world, economics, politics...a beautiful setting with the lakes and mountains behind us for such a high brow discussion. I need more brain food and do not hesitate when Luiz offers us a second dinner...
The next day starts off with a problem for Roberto. His bike does not start (we silently cheer that our bikes work on manpower only) and it is kind of funny to see three men pushing a motorbike around the small parking lot to try and start it. I am not quick enough to get a photo and perhaps it would have been too insensitive! We are literally in the middle of nowhere and if the boys do not manage to start it then it would be a huge set back to Roberto's journey. Luckily the engine manages to ignite and we all load onto the ferry in good humour, despite the slow drizzle of rain that is reminding me of home.
On the other side we pile off and start on the final leg of the Carretera Austral. The bikers wave us a cheery goodbye - they expect to be there in 2 hours, max. We expect to be there in 2 days, max.
It is a slightly sad journey, despite the beauty. We know that the Carretera is coming to an end, and our moods are ever so slightly low. We have been talking about this road for such a long time that it seems surreal that we are so close to the finish. About 30km from the end we come to a standstill, partly to prolong the journey, but mostly to camp and escape from the confounded horseflies who have found us again. We move quickly to minimise the time spent outside the tent. As soon as we finish cooking we dive into the relatively safe interior of the canvas sheet and watch from inside as our tormentors continue to buzz around outside in their quest for fresh blood.
The next day we arrive in Villa O'Higgins. The final town at the end of the Carretera Austral. Yes, a rather Irish name, at the bottom tip of Chile. Named after Bernardo O'Higgins - one of the independence leaders in the 19th century who helped to free Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence. We camp in a lovely (expensive) campsite - totally worth it for the hot showers - to wait for the next ferry to take us across the Lago O'Higgins.
Leaving Cerro Castillo behind we enter the unpaved part of the Carretera Austral. 700km further South lies the end of the road, Villa O'Higgins. We have no idea what we'll do once we get there, but we have silently agreed to ride the length of the Carretera Austral. Not doing so would be unthinkable.
We finally enter the part of the Carretera Austral which looks like what we expected: An endless dirt road taking us through mountains, valleys, canyons, next to rivers, lakes and waterfalls, with limited traffic and stunning views.
We ride as much as we want and then find a clean, flat, removed from the road camping spot, always next to clean water. We set up camp, get the fire going, purify water, cook, write the diary, chat and sleep.
Then we do it all over again.
Every day for the next month will pretty much be like this. The Carretera Austral is sucking us in its magic, without us realizing the change. We relax, we slow down, we rest, even though we travel every single day. We are happy.
Sometimes we complain about the bad road surface...
...or the dreadful horseflies that prey on us all day long.
But the next wild camping spot is waiting for us wherever we want it. And its crystal clear river will be just there, for us to sit next to, read next to, munch next to.
The roads carries on South and so do we.
We visit the Catedral de Marmol caves close to Puerto Rio Tranquilo and marvel at how the lake's water has eaten into the soft stone to create otherworldly formations...
The entire cave looks as if it has been hand-chiseled as it has been slowly eaten away by the water.
What is left looks like a cathedral, hence the name.
On our way out we find these two obviously lost piglets standing right in the middle of the Carretera Austral. They are shaking... with fear? With cold? With both? In any case we dramatically increase their life expectancy by gently pushing them off the road.
Back on the (organized) campsite we find a small bug having rapelled from an impressive height down to our eye level, as if waiting for a chance to strike up a conversation with a human. It's dangling there from its single silk-like string, gently rocking back and forth with the wind.
After collecting wood we light the wood stove, wait for 15 minutes and then enjoy two brilliant hot showers.
The next day we leave Puerto Rio Tranquilo behind and hit the road again. Heading south.
It's a difficult day with suffocating heat, many horse flies, difficult uphills and dangerous traffic on the Carretera Austral. We stop at something that looks like a chalet to ask if we can camp on their extensive and unused grassy gardens but get "no" for an answer. They point us to the house of the caretaker next to the chalet. Don Victor beckons us to pitch our tent in his small yard before we even get the chance to ask. We are filthy and tired, with remains of horse flies all over our clothes. We can not be bothered too much with the chicken roaming all over the yard, or the cats looking at our tent in bemusement, or the dog that is trying to make friends by sticking its nose in everything we own. It's a Zen moment - a moment when a rational assessment of the difficulties and risks (animals tearing/peeing on our tent, being constantly chased by horse flies, having to camp in a yard covered with chicken/cat/dog poop) would not be acceptable. The warmth of hospitality gives us a good distraction and we try to focus on that and just get on with our usual tasks (cooking, purifying etc) when... the stove starts acting up.
The new stove. The one we waited ONE MONTH in San Pedro de Atacama for.
I understand things breaking after a lot of use and abuse. The previous stove had been to India and back, and taken two months of cooking in Chile as well. But this one was practically new! We have used it for less than two months and the pump is starting to act up... it proves difficult to get it to work at all. My morale takes an instant dive. I feel everything collapsing around me and a wave of anger taking me over. Don Victor helps us again by inviting us to cook using his gas stove, so we have a warm meal and then go to bed with dark thoughts.
The next day we formulate a plan. We will carry on pedalling until we reach a village. All villages have GSM coverage (for mobile phones), which means we can connect to the Internet using our Kindles. Which means we can order a new stove online from Andesgear in Santiago, as we should have done in the first place when the first stove broke.
Technological incompatibilities notwithstanding (Kindle's browser is too simple to deal with the poor webpage creation practices that are commonplace nowadays - a disregard for standards results in web pages that are only viewable with specific operating systems and browsers) we manage to order an MSR Whisperlite Internationale stove online, and ask for it to be delivered in Cochrane, a town we estimate we'll reach in 2-3 days.
We stay at an organized campsite that night that is so infested with horse flies...
...that we have to jump in the ice-cold Rio Baker to escape them for a little... of course screaming and jumping out as fast as possible before the freezing water makes our heart stop.
The next day we move on and as we are negotiating the ups and downs of the Carretera Austral, disaster (almost) strikes. I am leading at this point with Ping closely following, but after a series of sharp downhill corners I lose her. I reckon she's just taking it easy and wait for her by the side of the road. It's the days between Christmas and New Year's Eve, and the road is busier than normal. As I ponder all that, Ping is having an accident.
She has just entered a sharp right downhill turn with slippery gravel. She is fighting to keep control of the bike as the centrifugal force is pushing her to the left, in the way of oncoming traffic. It slides sideways, making it a struggle just to stay on the bike. At that exact moment, a couple of German tourists enter the corner from the opposite direction. They have rented a red 4x4 pickup truck for the holidays and are driving it back to Coyhaique.
They see each other at the last moment, swerve, and scrape each other with their right sides. Ping comes off the bike, somersaults and lands on her bum, out of the road. With nothing broken. The car stops, one of its mirrors hanging from a cable. Ping's bike doesn't appear to be damaged in any way.
After waiting for a few minutes I backtrack to the scene of the accident, get told the news and we agree to go to Cochrane together to file a report with the police for insurance purposes. So we get a lift, me on the pickup truck that could have been the end of Ping, and her with a Swiss couple who have appeared with their campervan.
Thus we arrive in cosmopolitan Cochrane, rival (as it should be obvious) to Hollywood a few miles north.
After sorting out the paperwork, sharing lunch and greeting our strangely acquired new acquaintances, we move into Cochrane's lovely little camping site and take the rest of the day off. We rest, wash, eat and chat with other travellers, like the Sri-Lankan-born Australian who is just back from a 6-week trek on the Campo de Hielo Sur which sounded not fun at all... 4 hours' sleep every day, lugging around 60kg of equipment per person, being pinned in their tents for two weeks in a row due to bad weather... some people really are adventurous!
The next day we explore Reserva Nacional Tamango just outside Cochrane - supposedly the prime location to see the elusive Huemul deer. We don't.
We also do not get lost, despite the best efforts of the local CONAF office (the national park authority of Chile) who have provided us with the GPS track data that you see in the photo...
What we *do* find, instead of cute Huemul deer, are thousands and thousands of tabanos (horse flies).
They make walking around the otherwise pretty park exhausting, since they force us to constantly move our arms around us, trying to make it difficult for the flies to land on us.
Once more (as in Cerro Castillo earlier - see previous blog post) we marvel at the uselessness of the signs in the hiking trails. Here, a fine specimen of a sign, expertly positioned.
(yes, Ping is pointing at it)
(no, you can't see it but it's there)
(yes, utterly useless)
We return to our camping site in Cochrane to meet a new challenge: The frozen salmon we found during our standard round of grocery shopping is too big for our largest pot! What now?
Luckily the chef (Ping) figures something out and we eat a splendid, mouth-watering salmon and rice dish.
In a dramatic turn of events, our new stove gets delivered on the 31st of December!
Amazing stuff! We managed to order it from Santiago on the 28th and it's already in our hands. Feeling liberated from the whims of the still-functioning-but-not-to-be-trusted Coleman 533, we overcome the initial confusion about how the damn thing works...
...and embark on a cooking frenzy for the next 2-3 days. We spend time around the campsite chilling out, getting to meet some very pleasant cycling tourers who have shown up, fighting to fix my air mattress that's leaking down feather all over the place...
...but mostly socialising with our partners in the cherry-picking-from-the-camping-sites-trees crime:
We manage to stay awake with everyone else until 00:30. The lady of the camping site comes out of her house and kisses every one of us on the cheek. We tourists, confused, mostly shake hands and hug among us, our heart warmed by the local traditions.
2011 is over. 2012 is ahead of us. We have less than a month until the end of our trip but are relaxed about it. We enjoy sneaking through the mini adventures of the Carretera Austral as its magic pulls us further south.
Episode XI: At last! Patagonia is our new playground
Finally we have arrived in Patagonia! Only 10 hours later than advertised. Luckily sunset nowadays is well after 9pm, and we have nearly two hours to find somewhere to stay. We disembark the ferry in a flurry of great excitement. We and the bikes fly off the ramp with great aplomb, into...another sleepy village. Puerto Chacabuco, a mere 82km (we think) from joining the Carretera Austral – the road that I’ve heard so much about – the road that so many cyclists traverse. We cycle through the village and come out the other side rather rapidly whilst looking for a campsite. Oops. Oh well…carry on then, to the next town, where we find rather posh looking cabañas (cabins) and for a laugh ask to see how much it costs. Oh surprise. 100 US dollars. I tell you. A nice round number. That’s all it is.
We cycle on quickly and find an establishment for a mere 20pounds to settle down for the night. It also doubles as a laundrette. It’s the first time we decide to trust someone else with our precious clothes and I find it rather unsettling. Afterall, we need all of our clothes and if any come back spoiled then it would be a minor disaster.
The next day we are rewarded with beautifully clean and unspoiled clothes. Hooray! I must do this more often!
The first day in Patagonia - another milestone surpassed. We've cycled 4000km so far this trip!
The road is initially flat and we are fairly cheerful, especially as the weather is fantastic. Where is the wind and sideways rain that we have been promised here?
Ha ha ha...clearly we were fooled. Here it comes, the pain...
We continue southbound and the scenery is incredible. Alpine-like views of snowy peaks. The brilliant blue of the water. The lush greenery makes the colourful flowers lining the roadside stand out even more.
We tuck into the biggest block of cheese in the world that we purchased from the truck on the ferry.
No...our diet hasn't changed, it's still ham and cheese sandwiches on stale bread...
It's so beautiful here that we even try our hand at an arty photograph
Not bad, eh?! Even if I do say so myself.
I am really enjoying cycling, and think how lucky we are compared to poor tourists in cars who miss out on all of this as the scenery flashes by before they get a chance to digest it. They also miss out on the smell of the flowers, the trees, the rotting fish (!), the sounds of the waterfalls…and GULP! – a bug flies straight into my pharynx. Great. Particularly good impact as I’m breathing in deeply at the time, enjoying the fresh air.
Despite five months on a bicycle, I can cheerfully say that my skills are as lamentable as before...How do I manage it?!
Just outside Coihaique where we finally join the Carretera Austral is a national park which we decide to hike around. Unfortunately the road up to the park is atrocious and although only less than 2km, it takes us an hour to cycle/push/swear uphill.
The walk is nice enough though and we finally get a chance to chat to each other. Silly as it is, normally it’s impossible to chat whilst dodging traffic on the bikes, and we are generally too busy doing something to speak to each other. There are just not enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do. Alex is supposed to be doing some deep thinking about life plans…hmmm, you ask him what the result is.
A few hours later we emerge to find a queue of workers for the park standing by our bikes – we’d managed to park them right next to where they stamp their time cards out, and wait for the bus. It’s the first time that we have had so much attention in Chile – mostly people just ignore our bikes and carry on as if it is an everyday sight but today they looked and I feel a bit embarrassed. We quickly run out of there and back down to the campsite where a hot shower awaits. This is three hot showers in three days – we are getting spoilt and soft!! But I have to say that before this trip I have never learnt to appreciate a hot shower…how wrong I was!
We shop at a big supermarket and are delighted to find Nutella – somehow the Chilean chocolates do not taste as good as the ones back home (and we have tasted a few!), but we can rely on Nutella. We buy two heavy jars (and many other bad things) and hightail it out of there.
The road is fairly reasonable but we have found our nemesis.
Flies!!! Huge great ugly horseflies as big as my thumbnail, attacking us from all directions. They are a complete menace and whilst swatting at them I manage to swat off my glasses! Luckily Alex stops before running them over and hands them back to me – delivering a lecture at the same time about how I should be more careful! These flies though, amazing skill - They circle the bikes as we ride – how do they do that?! We cannot escape them uphill, we’re going too slowly. I manage to chase one of them downhill at about 20km/hr to no avail. They are flying too fast for me to catch up. ARGH!!!
We thankfully arrive at the next stop – Reserve Nacional Cerro Castillo and go on to the campsite, where we find no less than seven cyclists already set up camp, gathering around a roaring campfire. I guess everyone else set out from Coihaique about 3 hours before we did! We’re back to the bad old days of getting up at 9am and leaving sometimes after noon. I am slightly ashamed and quickly set about looking efficient and busy (I'm good at that!). We are told there is only a cold shower, which we braved - as we were utterly drenched by our own sweat today - it was 32 degrees, as we were later told, and particularly unpleasant. With our usual speedy efficiency, we are the last to go to bed, and get up. In fact, the campsite is nearly empty. Oh well. Lucky we will never face them again - they'll all be days ahead of us!
We decide to do the recommended 4-day hike in this National Reserve (now mapped on OSM - Alex). We go back into Coihaique by bus (65km away) to buy some backpacks.
Alex is torn between a super-duper completely waterproof-with-suspension North Face sleek black model and a DeVoux. Heard of it? No, nor us. Being the cheapskates that we are we opt for the 50 pound traffic-light red DeVoux which Alex has subsequently fallen in love with. I can talk, I have ended up with a lime green *blink* glow-in-the-dark *blink* *blink* backpack. Stylish.
We are successful in our mission, and pick up other essentials for the Big Hike (the ice-cream is just to smooth things along during the day). At 7pm we wander back out of the heart of town to start getting a ride back to our tent. No buses come our way, and eventually we manage to get a lift for 10km away. Only 55km to go then. Oh good, another one, for 20km. We are still quite far away and traffic is slowing up. It's now 9.30pm, dark, and we are stuck in a tiny village. Funny how suddenly a lift from someone is no longer a favour, but we start feeling peeved when people ignore us and drive on, looking determinedly ahead. Surely it's our right to get a lift?!
Clearly not. We finally manage to persuade a hotel personnel to give us a lift back, if we paid him the price of a room. Outrageous. But OK...and we want to get back. It's 11pm by the time we arrive at the campsite again and we are tired and hungry. A guy comes out from the surrounding darkness, carrying a hot, burning log. He's about to go to bed and thought we would like a hot fire. Hooray! He has restored our faith in Chilean kindness.
The next day we pack up all the essentials into our two new backpacks (as you can see, food is important to me...)
and finally set off for our first hiking adventure.
A lift to the beginning of the trail on the back of a pickup.
Before Chile we were always a little astonished at people who loll about at the back of trucks like this...not particularly safe. For me it's the same category as hitch-hiking. But we're fast learning that it is a necessity - either that or grow some wings!
The lift meant we missed out on this scary downhill - it looks like the car is about to topple over...
Chileans love their roadsigns, and we've seen a good many funny ones!
The first day of the trek is not particularly exciting. We follow vehicle tracks and swat flies. I manage to kill 27 by lunchtime. The trail is spiced up by a few river crossings that we were not expecting to do...I get in a little too deep and my trousers are completely soaked. The water is absolutely freezing and by the time I'm out the other side my feet are like ice blocks.
When eventually we do come across a bridge, it looks just a little bit wobbly...
Being true adventurers we fill our bottles from the streams and rivers...and then filter to make the water totally bug-free. So the advertising on our filter says. Other people are not so cautious and will drink straight from the flowing water. It is from mountain springs after all.
At our first campsite we are tired and cold. I've never built a fire by myself before - someone has always been around to help, but here I try my luck and what do you know, with a single strike of the matchstick, it catches and we warm our cold fingers and toes around it.
Day two - we come across some rocky terrain...that's ok. We're explorers, you know. And then some snow. That's ok too. The ranger assured us that our hiking shoes are enough and we need no special equipment. Only 300m of snow, honest!
A kilometre later our feet are soaked through and I slide my way to the bottom of the hill.
Luckily we have some magnificent views of the glacier to take our minds off the snow and cold.
By day three the weather is starting to close in and we have a more difficult river crossing. I throw some rocks in to make it easier - only resulted in a slightly unhappy Alex as I misjudged the splash. Twice!
Nope, got my feet wet.
Getting higher and higher in altitude at Laguna Castillo. An exhilarating view of the glacier, the lake, and the way we'd come already. The rocks are not fun, but nothing compared to what we are about to go through.
The lack of signage is a big problem. A little splash of red and white paint is all very well if you can see it. Some kind helpers have piled up rocks to show the way. We decide to lend a hand and help out the rangers too...I'm trying to increase the size of the pile of rocks to make it more obvious from more than 10 yards away! It gets addictive and we start to spend more than a couple of minutes piling up the rocks. The weather behind us is getting rapidly and very noticeably worse.
We see a hiker illuminated in all colours highly visible bounce over the rocks down to us. He is one of those fit, cheery people who clearly loves this. He has the proper equipment and we sigh after him as he bounds away downhill. We are struggling to climb over the large rocks in our way, and our newly-found walking sticks (broken off branches) are helping a bit. We go over the top of the mountain and then the wind hits us. And the rain. Then the hailstones. And finally snow. It was NOT amusing. I was NOT impressed. I would NOT like to do it again. The weather was, as you will have gathered, atrocious. We fight to keep the rubbishy raincovers on our backpacks...ah-ha, the 250 pounds difference in backpacks is significant afterall. Everything is wet anyway and we start to give up. Visibility is appalling. We can barely see what next signs there are. I slipperly-slide my way down the rocks and my stick breaks. Fantastic.
We have no photos of this episode. It was a fight just to stay alive.
Imagine the relief when we finally find some shelter amongst some trees. I can´t imagine what the rangers are thinking of, sending us off with little directions (could be our poor Spanish...) and pitiful signage. We wonder whether the people behind us make it...we only see one of two groups the next day. We meet some people coming the other way, who say, "You went through that? We gave up and turned back."
As we patted ourselves gratifyingly on the back, we try to dry off our stuff at the lovely roaring campfire they had stoked up. We are intermittently successful, before the constant drizzle also intermittently intensifies.
Waking up the next day, we wonder at the snow on the mountain...will we have a white Christmas after all?! It is FREEZING! The views are unfortunately non-existent and we gratefully make our way down the mountain for the final day.
I realise halfway down that fashion crimes are being committed in the name of adventure. I apologise for this picture and hope that it will not be held against me in the future.
At the official trail exit at Villa Cerro Castillo the rain starts in earnest. Thanks. We say this because we cannot work out why it seems to lead to a locked gate. We wander along the hopelessly signed path hoping to find another way out for at least half an hour in the pouring rain. Another group comes along, having entered that way the previous day, and we figure the best way is to just get on with it...
Arriving at the Villa Cerro Castillo, the village at the end of the trail we slosh our way through the rain into a restaurant for a well-earned meal and hot drink. We meet more cyclists who opened our eyes to this...For all you smokers out there, this is what the Chileans have to say...
Our not-particularly-helpful rain covers for the rucksacks spectacularly failed in their jobs. We arrived back at camp and built the now obligatory campfire, to dry our sleeping bags over the fire.
Some more cycle-tourers tell us about the wood burner which heats the water for a fantastic hot shower. We will be grateful until the end of time!!
Waking up the next day...a snowy December day in Summer Patagonia. What a change from four days ago before the hike. At least there are no flies.
We need a rest day after all this hiking. Although the distances were not far our muscles are not used to this. We also need more time to dry out the damp equipment. Our adventurous spirit only slightly dampened, it will dry out quickly and we will be ready to tackle the Carretera Austral. Hooray!
What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down
("When the music´s over" - The Doors)
Fences, fences, fences... a beautiful land cut up and tied down with fences. So much lush wilderness rendered inaccessible, unlovable, behind private fences. But I´m getting ahead of myself.
Looking back to our short stint in Bolivia I just wanted to say this: We are in no way athletes or even particularly good cyclists. But we were psyched up to make the 500km stretch of more or less brutal offroad. We were prepared and determined - which made it far easier than we expected. I am still impressed by how we plowed through the lagoon route to Salar de Uyuni and attribute 90% of it to the awesome strength of the human mind.
Onwards with the story:
After replacing our broken tent zips with brand new ones kindly FedExed to us by Hilleberg USA
and freeing Ping from the urban cage she was doomed to endlessly cycle around in
we feel ready to leave Santiago.
I was cycling along a secondary road just south of Santiago when I noticed a chap on a wheelchair on the pavement - he seemed to be tending to a stand, selling something or other to passers-by. But when he saw me his face lit up - he raised his arm in greeting and with a great smile said "Good travels!" (in Spanish)
Such a simple & powerful gesture. He really meant it. He really hoped he was there cycling with us. And he was really happy to see people enjoying the simple things he could not enjoy.
I smiled and waved back, said "Gracias" or something equally uninspired. What more was there to say?
We head south, certain that as before we will be able to get a lift on a truck heading to Valdivia or beyond, saving us from the agony of cycling hundreds of miles when we are running out of time and have not even seen Patagonia yet...
Unfortunately it was not to be.
Falling in ditches next to the Ruta 5 does not stop us.
Neither does selecting the right cuppa.
The problem is that we are too close to Santiago, there is too much traffic and nobody will take us. We attempt to thumb a ride for hours but cars, 4x4s and even our trusty old companions on the Ruta 5, the truckers, ignore us. Feeling slightly insulted we freecamp in a field and attempt to find a bus to take us south the next day.
Turns out that most bus companies don´t want to talk to us because transporting bikes is "muy complicado"... We find a company that consistently says "no problem" for the bikes and get a ticket for their next bus to Valdivia, a few hundred kilometers to the south.
After waiting for 8 hours for the bus to arrive (we must´ve just missed the previous one...) we are told there is no room for our bikes but not to worry - another bus also heading south does have room and can take them. So we leave Rancagua on one bus, with the bikes and all our luggage in another bus. Quite disconcerting so far...
After a few hours we reach Temuco, the intermediary station where we are supposed to get our bikes and stuff from the other bus. We do, and are relieved to see everything there, only to be told that our bus still has no space and by the way they are already late with all these shenanigans and need to go.
So we are left outside the Temuco bus terminal, with 10 pieces of luggage on the tarmac and two bikes, watching the back of our bus disappear towards Valdivia.
After a quick and easy partial refund we do the rounds of all bus companies to be told consistently that our case is a complicated one and they cannot really take us. We ride to the train station to be told there are no passenger trains from Temuco. Just as we were getting slightly desperate the security guards of the train station tell us about an "other" bus terminal, operated solely by JAC buses. "They will take you", they say. Indeed, we find the terminal and the JAC people don´t bat an eyelid when we ask for tickets for our bikes, this time to Puerto Montt - further south than Valdivia. The reason for this change in plans is that we realise bussing it from A to B is hard and we will go as south as possible now that we have the chance.
So, as if by magic, within 72 hours of leaving Santiago we disembark from our JAC bus in Puerto Montt. The landscape has changed completely. Gone are the arid flats of the desert, with its grey golden colours dominating. Here, lush green forests dominate the landscape. It´s a lovely sunny day. We stock up on provisions from the nearest grocery store, strike up a random conversation with a (probably) Croatian elderly lady who embarks on a ramble (probably) about Communism and then are off! Back on the bikes again, we head SW and soon reach the island of Chiloe.
Over the following days we explore Chiloe, kindly hosted by locals who don´t mind us camping on their land at all.
Some farms are more graphically decorated than others.
But, the keeping up with the Jones´ phenomenon ensures there is fierce competition for the most imaginative decoration.
Most secondary roads of Chiloe are loose gravel which makes cycling hard work:
But the beauty of the place cannot be disputed, even when you´ve been pushing the bike uphill and are swimming in your own sweat.
We get lost in the many little roads of Chiloe, mostly following the coastline from north to south, stopping for fresh bread and yummy cake, visiting lonesome beaches and having lunch next to itchy horses.
We stay in a rather posh (for this trip´s standards) B&B in Tenaun, admiring the fa-nta-stic food served by the lady of the house (esp. the breakfast which she was unwise enough to invite us to share with her family...unwise because after we'd finished with it, the family had to eat plain rolls with little else!) and going "meh" with another UNESCO World Heritage wooden church of Chiloe:
We then move on to Dalcahue, a slightly larger village with a fantastic top-of-the-hill (and impeccably clean) campsite where I have no idea what gets into me and I feel adventurous enough to try the local delicacy: "Curanto".
Do I look unimpressed? I don't do seafood. Another pack of cookies polished off...
Ping´s brain on the other hand is undeterred by classical economics notions like "sunk cost" so she feels she has to polish off the Curranto since "we paid for it!" - the result is a (not wholly unexpected) allergic reaction which gives her a difficult night and a slight Yoda resemblance:
We push on fast enough for Ping to manage to unseat her bike´s chain (again), thus having the messy task of putting it back on
Typical tea time in a rather stylish campsite in Achao, Isla Quinchao (just off Chiloe):
...and one of our usual yummy meals. I do believe we are quite high in the global gourmet scale of cyclocamping travellers:
Achao´s wooden church (apparently the oldest of Chiloe´s wooden churches) by dusk:
Returning to the main island, we visit the largest town, Castro.
We make the mistake - again - of following LonelyPlanet´s recommendation for "good food" and get the most miserable club sandwich I´ve had the misfortune to be served...
As per usual when we are in a largish place we hit the Internet Cafes ("ciber" as they are called in Chile) and are shocked by the state most of them are in... I mean look at this place! They are phone booths converted to "Internet points" in which one can barely breathe!
The state of the computers themselves are another atrocity to write home about - I have blogged about my experiences extensivelyelsewhere.
But enough of this techie stuff, back to the trip:
As I alluded to earlier, Chile has a fencing problem. One sees all this beautiful countryside idly sitting there, and it´s impossible to walk on it, camp on it, enjoy it in any way because it is extensively-to-the-point-of-absurdity fenced!
Our luggage as soon as it´s neatly propped inside our tent´s porch - before we open them and the place starts looking like a looted department store. Yes, we carry all these on the bikes.
We get a ticket for a ferry that will take us all the way to Patagonia straight from the southern tip of Chiloe, which means we have two days to spare - fantastic! We make the best of them by visiting the Chiloe National Park, a rather pretty but not-too-organised-or-maintained area.
We inquire about a two-day hike at the local ranger office and get given vague instructions that mention nothing of having to walk in the Pacific ocean
...or that the refugio is locked and deserted, or that some trails are unmaintained to the point of being dangerous:
So we camp next to the beach at Cole-Cole (luckily the toilets are unlocked so we have only-slightly-saline water which is OK to drink after purification)
...and of course, map the bloomin´ trail so that the next people who decide to tackle it have the option of getting this information for free on their GPS.
The next day we head back and, already having walked about 20 kilometers, decide to take the bus everyone has been talking about for the last part of the slog back to Cucao. We don´t have proper backpacks and carrying the essentials for a two-day hike in our bicycle-pannier-turned-backpack contraption has been rather unpleasant.
"The bus" turns out to be a packed-to-the-brim pickup truck. The driver creates some space by opening the back flap of the cargo area and having us stand on it, with another guy, while holding on to a piece of string for dear life.
After riding the length of the beach like this and paying twice as much as locals (which always makes me feel welcome as a tourist), we hop on a real bus that takes us back to our campsite, where the bikes and the rest of our gear (including my sleeping bag...) have been waiting for us.
A few hot chocolates later we are ready to hit the road. We enjoy the day drawing to a close as we ride as far south as we can
...and get to Quellon, the port at the southern tip of Chiloe, the next day.
The tsunami signs are artistic as ever:
Our ferry to Puerto Chacabuco in Patagonia is supposed to leave at 22:00 - being prudent about the whole thing we are in Quellon at 17:00. As soon as we get to the port we notice a printed A4 stuck to the inside of the ticket office saying "Boat delayed due to wind, will be here around 1am". (in Spanish, of course)
So we have a few hours to kill... we visit Kilometre Zero of Ruta 5 (part of the Pan-American Highway)
and then seek shelter from the rain and cold in an Internet cafe, the owners of which are kind enough to let us park the bikes inside AND stay until after midnight! It has a working toilet and computers as well - truly the best specimen of Cibers in Chile we have seen so far.
The "Alejandrina" shows up around 1am but loading her is extremely slow for some reason... we end up embarking by 03:30, properly cold and exhausted, which helps us sleep instantly in the jampacked passenger hall (there are no cabins).
This is what the passenger hall looks like after the first stop (12 hours into the trip), where thankfully most people get off.
We carry on for another 30-something hours, picking up yummy fruit and vegetables from a truck on the boat whilst we´re at it
Continuing with our quest to the Salar, we cycle on from San Pedro de Quemes (in Bolivia now, don´t forget!) towards Uyuni. Poor Alex is in pain from being saddle sore. His Brooks´ saddle, the choice of all the cyclists we have met so far, it seems, has given him two very red, very painful looking areas on his derriere. Mine, the "gel saddle that will never last" (thank you Olivia and Robbert for getting this Dutch saddle with me) - is fan-dabby-tastic. I am not sore. I am not in pain. I have stood up though for a lot of the journey! But at least my bottom is still fairly cheerful! By the way, if you are a keen mountain biker, and you know who you are - this IS the journey for you...you MUST try and do these two weeks. Believe it, it´s worth it...(if you are a keen mountain biker!!)
A quick list of the food supplies we took with us on our two-week journey...we WILL make it last the entire trip...and yes, it did!
11 small to medium sized carrots
LOADS of powdered milk (ridiculous amounts....probably a kilo?!)
1kg of porridge (!) we still have it now - four weeks later...
4 boxes of cereal
1.5kg rice (!)
3 tomato sauces
5 cans tuna
10 pieces bread (topped up by another 6 stale pieces...eeeek...)
6 eggs (topped up by another 8 en route...)
500g dried tofu (that was a real find in San Pedro!! Protein with practically no weight!)
Four packs of cookies
As much dried fruit as I could get my hands on....
Day 11 - San Pedro de Quemes to Salar de Uyuni (67km)
A brief stop at the "Galaxy caves" - some rock formations which look quite cool - unfortunately our poor command of Spanish means that we smile at the guide and ask to go through the caves alone. There is also human (Inca) remains around the site. I presume it was a burial site once upon a time.
We also see some "petrified cacti"...they have become solid rock over time. Strange...But you can see the landscape we are viewing behind Alex.
We finally arrive at the Salar de Uyuni! This is what we have spent the last 11 days slogging away for. Initially it is not impressive. Dirty roads make me question the sanity of doing the whole trip. We cycle on. And on, and on, and on. It is undeniably huge. 12,000 square kilometres, to be exact. Eventually it becomes white.
We see a wooden....is it a tree? from a distance...we cycle up close and take a photo - later we find out that it is the inside of a cactus. It seems that these plants have a wooden core!
And at its foot there is a beautiful structure of....salt - no idea what´s underneath though.
We are surrounded by a blinding whiteness - the sun shines on relentlessly. The ground is mostly hard. Every now and again it is a little wet. The wheels are picking up salt too.
I am utterly exhausted and we find a small "island" to camp on. The islands are outcrops of soil (how? Who knows?!) on an otherwise unblemished background of white salt. I find the whole experience a little odd.
Day 12-13 - Salar de Uyuni (23km, 26km)
We cycle on in the searing heat to try to find the Isla Pescado (Fish Island) where there are far fewer tourists. We finally see the typical image of the salar that we have seen in postcards. We eventually land somewhere that we think is likely and Alex collapses in a heap of ill health.
We start to put up the tent together and suddenly he disappears as I turn around to pick up some pegs. A moment later I find him lying on the ground under the tent, essentially unable to move for the next few hours as waves of nausea overcome him.
I sit and read. It is hot!
The next day we cycle on to the main tourist attraction - Isla Incahuasi.
It´s impossible to figure out exactly how far it is by purely looking. The GPS helps a lot here. I still can´t believe we have finally made it to the Salar.
The ride on the Salar is quite bumpy. I feel a bit nauseous myself by the end of the ride. There are at least 10-15 jeeps parked at Incahuasi. We find a quiet place with a cave in which to camp,
have a vegetable soup for lunch (still counts, even with only 2 types of veg!),
a little snooze and then explore the island with its giant ancient cacti - apparently at least one is 900 years old.
We play with funny photos of perspective...
Noooo, I´m going the wrong way and am about to hit the seat....
Surprise! I AM your lunch today!!!
Will she make it, won´t she, the new ballerina for the infamous Royal Ballet of the Salar de Uyuni...
A bit of fun before retiring for the night...
Day 14 - Salar de Uyuni to Uyuni town (101km)
Knowing this will be a long day, we are up at 4am. Finally we are to leave this strange place and return to civilisation. We take the "highway" where scores of jeeps have previously passed and flattened the salar. It makes for an easy ride all the way to the edge - almost 80km away. We see deep "potholes" of clear, deep blue water where the underlying lake comes through. I am relieved to reach the edge, only to find that the real road to the town is horrendous. I fall into a bad mood again as I contemplate the next few hours of struggling. We reach a salt mine at the edge of the salar - we see that everything is done by hand.
People actually have to shovel the salt onto the trucks and pat it down. I feel like I have gone back in time to pre-Industrial age times...
At last, we can also get rid of the rock that I have been carrying to bang the tent pegs into place on the hard surface of the salar.
Finally we reach Uyuni and I breathe a sigh of relief. It´s a new record, over 100km today.
I am surprised to see that Uyuni looks a desolate, dusty and unloved town. By now I am completely spent and am glad to follow Alex and his GPS to a lovely, expensive hotel (30 pounds, the most we have paid this trip so far!). We shower and wander out in search of sustenance.
I don´t like the town much, a bit touristy, but generally with a neglected feel. Funnily enough the detail that remains with me is that I spotted 5 dental practices in the time we had to walk around time. Five. That´s a lot! I have to say though that I didn´t notice a huge difference in the teeth of the Uyuni Townies...We end up having what appears to be standard fare - roast chicken, rice and chips and stumble back to the hotel for a well-earned rest.
Day 15 -18 - Uyuni town to Santiago (Uyuni - Calama 460km, Calama - Santiago 1566km)
Almost as soon as we have arrived in Uyuni, are we plotting our way out of here. We spy a sign for an airport and are super-excited....only to find that it is really an airport-in-progress as the tower is still being built, and the personnel only arrives when the plane arrives (i.e. at least another hour later). We wait and hear a rumble in the distance that we take to be the plane landing...full of excitement we look out and see...
We decide on getting the bus back to Chile, but the next bus to the border leaves at an ungodly 4am. We sigh and wander around the sights. This is seen from the back on market day...
Alex has a fight with a lady who owns the internet cafe when he tries to tell her that her computers need a bit more protection than...well, none really (i.e. antivirus etc). She takes immediate offence and charges us each for the hour, despite us having only been there for less than five minutes. We scarper out of there and find another place. All places have a rule of allowing no USB connections. It means that we have to wait for the photos to upload back in Chile.
We gladly escape the town at 4am, our bikes being stowed into the luggage compartment of the bus.
(this is Alex taking the bikes out at the end of the journey)
We were worried about the size of the bikes, but then as we queue up at 3am, we realise that most people have far more luggage. They appear to be taking things to sell at a market. This indeed is correct and at 8am we arrive at the borders, stamp our passports out of Bolivia, and are taken to I guess a no-man´s land area where everyone promptly starts to set up camp for a bustling market. This is before it became busy...
More buses arrive and people start to gather. We patiently wait for the next bus to take us into Chile only to be told that it will be a four-hour thumb-twiddle. Finally the bus is ready to leave as the driver hoists up our bikes onto its rickety roof-rack whilst we look anxiously on.
Another six hours and a bumpy (though again beautifully scenic) bus ride later, we finally arrive back in Calama, Chile. We celebrate by having an empanada (totally starving by then) and ride off to find a campsite for the night. Whilst setting up the tent we meet a couple from Germany who look to be in their sixties-seventies who tell us that they have been travelling around the world for the last twenty years or so in their Unimog. We are in awe and spend a happy couple of hours sharing wine and sharing adventures. So this is what we have to look forward to!
Leaving Calama the next day, we head west and are picked up by three mechanics out on a trip to fix a broken-down truck for about 80km. We are not complaining...that would have taken us a full day at least!
Next we are lucky enough to meet Carlos, a trucker with an 18m truck who throws our bikes into his empty truck and tells us that he is going to Santiago.
We hop on and quickly realise that it will be a noisy and bumpy ride. The truck is much older than the previous one we were in and Carlos is constantly adjusting the steering to make sure that the truck goes in a straight line. It looks exhausting. He also seems slightly superhuman, driving from 7pm to 3am with the minimum of breaks, whilst we are unable to control ourselves and one by one drops off to sleep.
We manage to get a proper few hours rest in the back of the truck when he finally stops for the night.
The rest of the way to Santiago is dealt with from 9am to 11.30pm in one fell swoop. Do we look tired?? We have just had four hours sleep and are having a cereal breakfast (powdered milk, hoorah!) in the back of the truck...
We have a little short stop to look at what looks like a little zoo...
And another to get some sweets for the family before he arrives home.
On learning that we are reluctant to cruise around this big city at night on our bikes, he offers the truck again, giving us the keys before disappearing off into his house (just round the corner) for a well-earned rest. I wonder what his neighbours think of a big truck appearing every now and again on their street...
So there it is. We have arrived in Santiago, having left Bolivia less than 48 hours ago. It is quite incredible. It took us three months to get there in the first place.We are really sorry that we have not been able to re-visit our friends along the way like we wanted to, but our time in Chile is getting shorter by the minute. Today we have booked our flight home in January. A sad moment indeed. In the meantime, our thoughts are turned towards the south. Everyone we speak to in Chile highly recommends it, beautiful scenery, wonderful people. We are really looking forward to it and will be carefully documenting our time there.
Can you believe it?! We actually manage to leave San Pedro de Atacama. I thought I would dry out to a crisp by the time we are able to leave. The Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world, and my skin, hair and general extreme thirst at all times is proving this to be true.
We gamely begin a new routine for this most difficult of routes - the Lagoon Route to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia - by getting up early and leaving town by 7am. Well, that´s the plan. The bakers however ignore our shouts and bangs on the door until the shop front is opened by the (late!) shop assistant at 7.15am. Precious minutes wasted.
We buy 10 pieces of bread, and get out of the town with a huge sigh of relief. In my thoughts I am replaying all the pieces of advice we have been given by other cyclists in the past month - who have all cycled this same route, but from the other end. (Please excuse some paraphrasing)
"If you can do this route you can do anything (on a bicycle)." - Judit, Explore Pangea
"My butt is still traumatised from the sand and washboard road." - Judit, EP. ("Washboard" describes the horizontal ruts that the road disintegrates to, making it a bone-shattering ride for cyclists, especially those without any suspension. It looks like a washboard, hence the name.)
"But I would do it again...just not right now!!" - Judit, EP.
"Ohhh, don't worry. You will be 10kg lighter by the time you guys come back from Uyuni." - Yannick
"There are no vegetables or fruit to be found en route. You may as well forget it for two weeks." - Yannick
"I took carrots and apples....and had to eat the last apple at the border of Chile!" - Marilli
(does this count? A few raisins and cranberries, part of my dried fruit stash?)
"Ohhhh, you´ll have to start getting used to powdered milk...there´s no other way." - Judit, EP.
"You have to knock on the doors, to get attention, and also order the bread for the next day...it´s quite hard to get fresh supplies." - Judit, EP.
"You should be able to get to refill points [for water] every second day." - Martin
"You can always stop the tourist jeeps and ask for help/water." - Yannick, Martin, Cesar (EP).
"You can always stop wherever you are when you run out of energy and camp for the night." - Cesar, EP.
"The wind starts in the afternoon, it makes it a horrendous ride." - Everyone!
"Actually the wind starts at 10.30am..." - Marilli
"I would really advise you to start early [in the day]." - Yannick
"The problem with starting early is that it´s REALLY cold [at that altitude]" - Everyone
"We sleep with our water bags as pillows to prevent them from freezing." - Yannick
"We pour out water for the morning in the pan [the night before] , so even if it freezes it´s ok." - EP
"We take our insoles [of shoes] into the tent with us." When I wrinkled my nose, he added, "It´s much more preferable to having freezing feet in the morning, I assure you!" - Martin
"We sleep with a bottle of water on the mattress between us to prevent THAT from freezing." - Marilli
"Martin just has a period every day where he swears profusely [on the route]. It passes, and everything is ok again." - Marilli
"We cycle with a cloth over our nose and mouth - it helps at high altitude because of the cold, and also increases the humidity of the air we breathe." - Cesar, EP. (Not to mention protection from the sun and wind and the dust from the jeeps)
"Cycling at high altitude means you get very short of breath very quickly, but your legs are not tired. Just keep pushing on." - Judit, EP
"If you´re going to camp on the Salar de Uyuni, you´ll need to take a rock with you for the pegs." - Martin
"Be careful where you camp on the Salar - the jeeps just run all over the salar, and you could get run over in the middle of the night." - Martin
"You should definitely be able to get to the border on the first day (43km), and to the first lakes" - Marilli
Rest assured everyone, that at some point or another we made good use of every bit of the advice! This last piece of advice, ringing in my ears, make the failure of arriving at the border on the first day that much worse! Here´s the story...
Day 1 - San Pedro to Km 31 (34km)
The first 43km out of San Pedro is uphill. Badly uphill. Tarmac´d road, but with a 2000m altitude gain. I still maintain that it was probably the worst bit of the entire two-week ride. We start in high spirits, and even make rude gestures towards San Pedro as we start to lose sight of it (we have really had enough of the place). At 11am, a huge water truck goes by - the driver is kind enough to stop and ask if we need any water. "I have plenty," he says, gesturing to the thousands of litres he has on his truck. We cheerfully decline.
The hill is relentless. I´m sure it becomes steeper. By 4pm we are losing the will.
The water truck returns from the top, and the driver this time won´t take no for an answer. He gives us a litre of juice, and offers sandwiches. Obviously we look like death warmed up - but it gives us renewed energy.
By 5pm we have fallen by the wayside. We have done 31 of the 43 uphill kilometres. Putting up the tent, we collapse into two untidy heaps inside. Too exhausted to talk, we need a brief shut-eye before even attempting dinner. I secretly worry that we have taken on too much and there is no way we can complete this route.
Day 2 - Km 31 to Laguna Verde (Green Lake) (32km)
We continue our new schedule of getting up at 5am to leave at 7am. There is already headwind at 7.30am. Alex is stopping every 500m. I stop every couple of hundred for a breather. We achieve our top speed - 2km/hr for the first four hours - yes, much slower than walking. A huge celebration is needed when we reach the border road at the top. I perform a little victory dance before going (thankfully) downhill towards the border.
The border guards look at us suspiciously...the passports are stamped out of Chile on the 4th November. We arrive on 6th November. One laughs when we say, cycling takes a long time, we have very heavy luggage. The other says..."It takes 12 hours to walk..."
Well. We took 15 hours. Eat that. I´m sure it´s a different road. Some tourists tell us that we were going very fast (in that downhill bit!) and that they are very impressed. We smile enigmatically and decline to mention what hell we have been through already.
Arrival at the national park is a triumph. We see the first lake - Laguna Blanca (White Lake) - with real joy.
We have our first meal in Bolivia....and there is a little bit of salad to keep up the vitamin levels. I have already fallen over twice today. I finally get to use the king-sized medical kit that I have brought with me.
Next to Blanca is Laguna Verde, a beautiful jade green sparkling under the sun. I am amazed at the difference in colour between the two adjacent lakes.
We see flamingoes. We try not to disturb them too much as we camp at some ruins for the night. It is barely big enough for our tent.
Day 3 - Laguna Verde to Laguna Chalviri (34km)
Realising that there is an one hour time difference in Bolivia, we set our clocks accordingly. Not realising which way the time difference is, we get up at 4am by mistake and are ready to leave by 6am.
It is COLD. All my fingers become completely wooden and the pain makes me cry out sharply even whilst cycling off road. The scenery is incredible but the jeeps are annoying. The dust cloud they stir up completely engulf us even whilst we get beeped or whistled at. We get much more of this over the next few days, but I still don´t get used to having my photo taken by strangers whilst I´m breathing heavily and struggling with the road. If I had the energy I would stick my tongue out for sure!
My head begins to hurt from all the jarring of the road. I wonder, is there a "Shaken Cyclist Syndrome?"
We surprisingly arrive at our destination by 1pm - I thought it would take much longer. As we rest inside the restaurant building, we can see tourists through the window, trying to lift up our bikes outside, to see how heavy they are. We can´t hear them, but we can see them shake their heads - in disgust??
For the record, the bikes are about 15kg, and then we carry probably 30-35kg...included in that are almost 20 litres of water. We have abandoned the huge plastic fizzy drink bottles we previously collected as we had no confidence that they would survive the off-road, and have come back to the faithful four we left London with: Squeezy, Moo, Funky and Black. Look out for them in photos of the bike!
The attraction here is the natural thermal pool, which is fantastically hot. It melts away the tension in our muscles and we watch the flamingoes from a distance.
We share the evening meal (Llama steak. Chewy.) with a French family Tresca who are travelling for a year with their fabulous Land Rover. I am deeply jealous of their "kitchen" - the entire drawer!
And equally impressed with these dedicated parents giving their children such an unforgettable experience. They carry schoolbooks with them and have a daily hour or so of "schooltime" before enjoying the rest of the day.
We pay a little money to sleep on the floor of the restaurant and to avoid the cold...
...only to find that our hostess possesses a very loud and incessant voice. Even our French friends are surprised in the morning by the amount of noise emitting from the restaurant that can be heard from inside their van even at 11.30pm. We are however not so happy. Especially when I blow my nose and they tramp loudly back through to shine a light onto our faces at some late hour. The complaining and banging of pots and pans re-start sometime after 4am. We get up at 5am to clear out of the way in time for the first tourists at 6am. These tourists unfortunately miss the best views of the day....sunset,
...and sunrise the next day.
Day 4 - Lake Chalviri to the Sol de Manaña geysers (23km)
We wait around for two hours in the morning thinking that we will eventually be fed breakfast after the tourists leave. There is unfortunately a communication error and we have to almost beg for food. A hungry start to the day. La famille Tresca overtakes us easily, despite a three-hour head start, as we set off up the hill towards our next destination.
We meet Chris on the road, another Swiss, on a recumbent bike this time. Nearly at the end of his journey (coming the other way), he generously gives us two packets of yummy crackers (before you ask I don´t know why people keep giving us food...perhaps we are wasting away?), before leaning back on his bike and merrily goes downhill. We continue to climb up to the dizzying height of 4860m where we camp for the night.
It is only 3pm but it has already become quite cold and windy.
We dress accordingly - i.e. put on almost every item of clothing we are carrying - and celebrate our success with a hot chocolate. Afterwards we carry everything into the tent that we have been advised to...and more, to prevent problems with frozen food and malfunctioning stove in the morning.
We go for a walk and discover that the geysers here are quite active, hissing and bubbling in the mud.
The gale-force winds try to disperse the steam as soon as they come up from the ground, but even they are unsuccessful. The colours of the soil range from red to yellow to green to white, with all the minerals that this rich soil contains.
We are much more impressed by these geysers than the El Tatio geysers that we joined the tour to see back in Chile.
Day 5 - Sol de Manaña to Laguna Colorada (Red Lake) (36km)
Tea AND porridge for breakfast. We are prepared for a chilly start to the day at 5am. Impressively tourists are already being ferried about at 5.30am and the stream of visitors do not stop. Despite studying the road descriptions and maps daily I forget that there are two hard kilometres to do first thing. I slog away and mutter furiously to myself. (There is a comprehensive description of the route by previous cycle tourers. It would appear that cycle touring is not quite as bonkers as I think it is, and that there are numerous people in the world who do it....especially coming all the way down from Alaska. Surely that IS bonkers??) The road bang the bikes so hard that our panniers constantly bounce out of place and we have to put them back in.
A beautiful 20-odd km of not-too-bad downhill later, we reach the horrible 16km of "mostly pushing" (says the description) around the astonishingly red Laguna Colorada, with its many, many flamingoes.
The lake is a jewel - beautifully deep red with streaks of white. The road is in stark contrast to the beauty around us.
I angrily push, pull, lift, readjust my poor bike through the chaos of sand, washboard and ruts. If only I can stay in a straight line for more than 5 metres, then I wouldn´t get thrown off-course by a rock to my left, another to the right, a nudge into the sand, and a stand-still as the bike gets stuck deep. Again. ARGH! I wish I could ride like athletes in a cyclodrome at an angle, I can then stay on the edge of the washboard and not fall in.
The wind has been blowing on and off all morning (mostly on...) and we are glad to reach finally a Refugio - accommodation by the laguna. As we unload the bikes we see 5 other cycle tourers coming in the opposite direction. They say a quick hello, have some lunch, and are gone to continue on their journey. That´s dedication for you. The wind by this point is so strong that I find it difficult to walk, let alone cycle in that horrible bit I am glad to have left behind. We fight the wind to walk up to the viewpoint. Spectacular!
We stock up on chocolates, cookies (as I´m coming to realise, an essential foodgroup for any cycle tourer), eggs, (stale) bread and petrol for the stove at the shop and collapse into bed after pasta and sauce for dinner from the Refugio.
Day 6 - Laguna Colorada to the "rocky outcrops" (36km)
An easy morning with little to complain about.
We visit the Arbol de Piedra - Tree of Stone carved out by the sandy wind in these parts. I still think the "Queen´s head" that we have on a beach in Taiwan is more impressive!
We reach the "rocky outcrops" described by previous cyclists and follow some cycle tracks to them.
By now the wind is in earnest. We spend the best part of two hours trying out camping spots, eventually settling on the first one we tried. Our tent is just huge and does not fit very well in small spots. The supposed "windbreak" that these rocks are meant to provide is non-existent. We struggle heroically and manage to eat only half a kilo of sand in the process. The tent flaps alarmingly and I sit inside hoping that I won´t take off with the fabric. By now the tent zips are also playing up and we spend at least half an hour a day trying to shut the tent. It´s now at the stage that we only close the tent behind us just before going to sleep, and once in we are trapped, unable to get out until morning. I become hysterical, crying with laughter as I sit in the gale-force wind, avoiding the flapping edges of the tent (can´t shut it yet, not time to go to bed. Well, can´t shut it anyway!), contemplating our woes - our water filter drips all over the interior of the tent, Alex´s mattress self-deflate during the night, and Alex has just managed to spill water all over his trousers. You´ve gotta laugh...
Day 7 - "Rocky outcrops" to Laguna Hediona (44km)
We picked up another tip from the Trescas - use the emergency space blanket at night for the cold! Hooray! Dim that we are, we have saved it for "emergencies"...Alex finally wakes up in the morning (4.30am) and does not complain of the cold. The feet end of the sleeping bag however, has evidence of how cold it is. It has iced over. We leave it in the sun to defrost whilst we have breakfast.
The plan today is to pedal like crazy until the Ecolodge 45km away. From previous descriptions it is going to be a long and hard day. Within the first ten minutes we come upon a much better campsite than the one we had last night. Humph! The road deteriorates further...
If you were close by you would think that I was singing to myself as I emit little cries of "Ah!", "Oh!", "Eeeek!", "Woo!"...and a few others whilst bouncing from one unexpected rock to another. I quickly realise that I am fed up and knackered with trying to pedal the sandy uphill, falling off the bike within the minute.
I hop off the beast to start pushing. Much easier, but still hard work. Alex also discreetly pushes whilst I´m not looking.
Three hours later I am grateful to get to some downhill! Another record broken - it took us 3 hours to do 7km.
We say hello to another Swiss biking couple heading the other way. We exchange information about the hellishness of the most recent roads and carry on. I see lots of cycle tracks and feel happy that we are going where others have been before. Going the other way means that their uphill is our downhill, and a huge section where we have been warned would involve a lot of pushing we just whizzed through. Hooray!
We reach the five consecutive lakes. The road has changed and now it´s rocks we have to contend with. We have lunch hiding behind a sign for shelter from the wind and sun. Tailwind for a change - Hooray again!
This is our standard lunch. Bread (stale) and boiled egg (from a few days ago, when we have any left). I am not impressed, but valiantly continue to shove the food into my mouth. For the calories only, you understand.
Finally we reach the Ecolodge los Flamingos and a young boy left in charge tries to sell us a room for 100 US dollars. I actually laugh in his face. Rude, but I can´t help it. We had heard that there are rooms for 20 US dollars? Oh maybe, but we need to wait for the owner to return. Or we are offered to camp in the extension that they are building for free. We say yes, and here´s where we spend the night, amongst the bags of cement!
In our joy we neglect to pay close attention to the cooking. Our cutlery (spork) becomes more of a "sp-wave", as it melts in our cooking pot.
Day 8 - Laguna Hediona to abandoned ruins near Salar de Chiguana (60km)
We order breakfast just as comfortably as if we are staying in the Ecolodge itself and are off. This laguna has hundreds of flamingoes. We see the young flamingoes starting to turn from grey to a startling pink. A beautiful colour.
I enjoy the sight for a few moments and turn my attention back to the road. It is especially horrible today and I fly from the bike quite a few times...
We continue to climb in the worst conditions, and my mood becomes blacker and blacker. Completely selfishly I am getting utterly fed up with this. But also how can the government let its people (and scores of tourists) continue on these roads? Probably a hundred jeeps are on this road every single day. Is it not worth a little investment to improve the road? It is so unsafe for everyone and also drivers keep seeking out new tracks to see if they are more drivable, ruining the environment.
Make it a toll road to keep an income for maintenance if needs be, but...just do it!! I couldn´t even enjoy the downhill because it was just too dangerous.
Eventually we reach the smooth International Road (going from Bolivia to Chile) where we breathe a sigh of relief.
The winds pick up again and we wobble pass three massive trucks on the wrong side (but at least rideable side) of the road. All three are kind enough to slow to an almost stop to prevent the dust cloud from completely engulfing us. We get to the Salar de Chiguana and a fantastic "road". I almost dribble in my ecstasy at the smooth, flat ride...
Day 9 - Salar de Chiguana to San Pedro de Quemes (64km)
We fly through the rest of the Salar de Chiguana...
and finally arrive at San Pedro de Quemes. Not where most other cyclists go through, but we had exclusive information from Explore Pangea (and their GPS tracks!). We arrive at a hotel that they stayed at ...
- not that we would have known it´s a hotel. Nothing in San Pedro de Quemes is marked. No signs for hotel, shops, bakery, museum, internet cafe. Nada. People are very friendly though, and will tell you, "yes, shop, turn right from here it´s the green door with the red car outside. Just knock."
We knock and nothing happens. Meandering through an open side door reveals the family having an afternoon siesta. The lady of the house gets up and opens the shop for us. There is little to buy, but we make a valiant effort. By the end of the afternoon this is what we have amassed...
Note the lack of fruit and veg. Apparently that is only available in the town of Uyuni. Another couple of days of riding away.
Day 10 - rest day in San Pedro de Quemes
We chat to some other guests - who are drivers for the tourists. Their charges are up on the hill in the posh hotel, staying at 100 US dollars a night. We figure it is the neat roundness of the number that makes it so attractive. Our room cost us five whole British pounds for the night. Like true bargain hunters, we love it. So we stay another day, resting and reading. We eat all our meals at the hotel. Silly cheap, and quite tasty. A lot of llama meat! It´s obvious that the owners have just cooked a little extra and given us food from their own meals.
Everything takes its (Latin American) time. We find the museum. It´s not open. "Mas tarde (much later)", we are told. A bakery for bread - none at the moment, but yes, "Mas tarde". For some reason the electricity is not quite working at the internet cafe, you´ve guessed it, "Mas tarde". Most of these "Mas tarde" promises are kept, and we spend a pleasant day wandering from place to place inbetween snoozing and reading. We must somehow stand out amongst the tourists - we are tracked down back at the hotel by a shop owner who has suddenly been taken ill and cannot therefore cook for our dinner that night, and also the baker once the fresh bread is ready. Alex gets mega-excited as he realises that this town does not yet exist in OpenStreetMap, the free downloadable map system that we have been using on our journeys. Out comes the GPS as we start to note down the roads and shops. He is next to me now uploading all the information that we gathered for San Pedro de Quemes for the next lucky people to make use of.
We are still a little way away from our final destination of the Salar de Uyuni. We go to bed early so that we can have a full day of cycling tomorrow.
More in the next installment!
(Part deux of the San Pedro de Atacama installment - big one since we spent one full month there)
Leaving the freezing cold, scorching hot, extremely windy and dusty Salar de Atacama behind we locate a patch of trees that look like they would make a good campsite.
This patch is less than 15km away from the village of Toconao, so there is scant cellphone coverage. Here, Ping is demonstrating wireless signal optimisation techniques:
The patch of trees is indeed lovely, but we don´t pay enough attention to the prevalence of thorns before too late. Even though the deep sand means that riding is impossible and we have to push the bikes to get to a camping spot in the shade, we still manage to get a puncture (our first) in Ping´s front wheel.
Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tyres... also known as "puncture-free" - sporting in their product literature an image of the tyre running over a vicious looking thorn and devastating it. Well... they're good, but not that good. After patching the tube 3 times (as it kept losing air and I assume that we are not patching the hole properly) Ping suggests that we look for a second puncture. It hadn't even occurred to me.
So taken in by the product propaganda was I, that one puncture was improbable, surely two simultaneous punctures with no rider on the bike must be impossible!
Sure enough after two minutes I find the other hole, patch it, and all is well.
We spend a good 3 hours de-thorning
and de-pooping (damn goats!) our camping site
...then set up the tent, then dethorn some more. We have inflatable mattresses, and if a thorn went through the 4 layers of plastic we have under the tent, it would be very easy for it to pierce the tent floor and our mattresses too, rendering them useless. After a painful session of taking out thorns from under an already erect tent (which I suppose would have looked quite amusing to an external observer) we are ready to go to bed.
After waking up on the inflated mattress (and not on the floor) we know that we did a good job, which automatically qualifies the place for staying there for a few days. We cycle the 55km round trip to San Pedro whenever we need supplies or to use the Internet and get back before sundown.
Otherwise, we spend lazy days in our little patch of trees, reading, waiting for the stove valve to arrive, observing the llamas and wild asses roaming about...
generally following a very fast and anxious pace...
We spend a week out there. By the end of it, we are sufficiently bored to get down to downright dangerous activities. I cut Ping's hair
and she trims my beard in revenge
We get back to civilisation to see a truck carrying four trucks
... to have a shower, wash our clothes and remove all the thorns from our shoes.
After decamping and riding back to San Pedro, we´re told the village is out of water because of a pipe problem. Our regular camping site is closed due to lack of water. Great!
So we check in to an expensive (by our standards - 25 quid per night) hostel because it has running water (o, wonderful water tanks).
After spending some quality time with Judit and Cesar, and since we have now given up waiting for the stove replacement parts and have ordered a brand new stove from the USA (this time to be delivered by courier), we decide to not idle by and set off to visit the so called "Altiplanic Lakes" - Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques.
These lakes are 110km away from San Pedro de Atacama, at an altitude of 4300m. San Pedro is at 2500m.
Things don't start out too well - Ping feels rather unwell right by the outset
but subsequently carries on to cross the desert on day one and then reach the beautiful altiplano by day 2
The last stretch of the road to the lakes is very difficult, not the least because it is steep, quite loose and sandy
...and we have already climbed 1800 vertical meters that day, reaching 4300m of elevation!
(this is our elevation profile for the second day - we decamp at 2550m and pedal 43km up to 4300m)
We reach the entrance to the lakes reserve (marked by a rangers' hut) at the border of the two lagunas by 6pm of day 2.
At this point we are informed by the ranger that we are not allowed to camp anywhere around there and we have to go down to the valley (300 vertical meters down, the last stretch has taken us a few hours to push through...) to camp. We plead, negotiate, used the silent approach, use the "I'm just eating my cookies and stonewalling you" approach... in the end we reach an agreement. We will get a lift with the rangers' pickup truck down to the valley, where we can camp for the night, and they will give us another lift up to the lakes at 8am next morning.
Attempting to load the bikes onto the pickup truck make us realise this isn't going to work because the bikes do not fit onto the truck... so we lock them inside the ranger's hut, unload all our gear, throw it onto the truck
and are dropped off outside the limits of the national reserve, where we camp in full accordance to the letter of the law.
Phew. What a pallava.
After they drop us off my heart sinks to my proverbial boots as I realise I am beyond the point of tiredness where back home I would say "shower? nah, tomorrow" and just crash in bed, but we still have to find a camping spot, put up the tent, inflate the mattresses, put everything in the tent, get our sleeping clothes/gear out, prepare and eat food, purify water, do our teeth...
Somehow we manage to do everything. But we are quite silent. Too tired for chit-chat.
I don't sleep well at all that night - even though we are down at 4000 meters it is still quite cold, we have to get up at 6:30am to be ready to be picked up before 8am next morning and I am so tired I keep waking up with achy legs.
Next morning we are ready at 7:30 am and get a lift back up to the lakes as agreed.
We visit the lakes properly (quite pretty I have to say but without the sense of achievement of having pedalled to 4300 vertical meters I wouldn't have been too fussed)
...have a second breakfast with this view...
...then commence the 40km downhill that would take us back into the desert.
Alas, we underestimate the difficulty of the downhill - all the sandy patches we could barely pedal through (or not) on our way up are now prime traps for our wheels, making the bikes skid and swerve like crazy, making our fingers ache with constant braking.
Ping has a small spill just before getting into Socaire (the first village on the way back). Luckily she is unhurt, so we just have a proper rest break for lunch in Socaire before carrying on down the mountain, to the usual 2500 meters of the Salar de Atacama.
Ping is quite unimpressed.
...but, with a decent meal it's all alright once more.
We carry on pedalling, admiring the desert flowers that manage to flourish through grit, salt and occassionally tarmac:
Pedalling along the side of the Salar de Atacama:
We don't manage to reach San Pedro that night so we camp in our usual spot in a line of trees 25km out of the village.
We had been told by DHL that our package (the new stove from Amazon!) would be delivered the next day, so we rush into the village and accept extortion from the hostel we used for the delivery address ("but señor, the price 3 days ago was 8000 pesos per person" - "yeah, well today it's 10000 pesos per person, prices just went up"). Of course we are subsequently told by DHL that the package will be delivered "tomorrow".
In the meantime, out of pure habit we drop by the Post Office to say hello and ask whether we have a package from England and as usual leave them sniggering while we drag our feet out... BUT WAIT! This time, oh the surprise, they actually do have something for us. It's the spare part we had ordered 3 weeks ago.
Quelling our enthusiasm is the fact that we need to remove the old valve to install the new one, and after touring a couple of metal shops and three car mechanics it's obvious that the thing is stuck. So the stove is as good as a brick, we have the part in hand but we can't use it...
Add to that the fact that we left our shoes out of the hostel room one night and the next morning one of my shoes was gone (presumably nicked by a dog), and you can imagine my high spirits.
Here, making do with sandals since I'm left with only one real shoe.
DHL is being difficult, they keep promising delivery dates and then missing them, they don´t appear to know how to do their job, they ask us for more money, then they say no, and are generally being a nightmare to deal with. For some reason we will probably never know they decide to delay a lot, so we realise we'll need to hang around for another week, so we move out of expensive San Pedro and into the woods, this time in a place closer to the village.
This time I get the customary double puncture while pushing the bike through a thorn field.
Once more we have time to kill so other than reading we get busy building a wind breaker / heat reflector for our stove (assuming the new one will get there someday...) using cheap disposable baking trays.
For the result in action you will have to bear with us. We need a working stove, innit!
We hibernate as per usual, waiting for so called "professionals" to do their job and deliver the new stove.
We are lucky enough to meet Martin and Marilli, bicycle travellers extraordinaire, with whom we hang out for a day or two.
As if it is not enough to hang on tenterhooks whilst DHL change the dates of the stove delivery daily, one night we check our emails and find that our previous hostel owners have found my shoe! The one-shoed-cyclist, with a short-lived life of only 3 days, returns to the closet. Just in time for us to visit Valle de la Luna with Martin and Marilli.
Oh, and the dogs.
These dogs decided to follow us as we were leaving San Pedro de Atacama. We never looked at them, winked at them, fed them or anything. They just came along for the ride (run?).
They enjoyed the cave-like passages...
and followed us for over 50km throughout our exploratory meanderings.
We get back to the village anxious to see if there has been any update on the delivery of our stove, only to find a rather cryptic message from the company DHL has offloaded our package to:
Not having lost hope for the day, we hang out in the main square, keeping a beady eye on the post office and all van traffic through the village, periodically checking the hostel as well. The reason is nobody had managed to inform us WHERE the package would be delivered to. Minor details, eh?
I see it. It's a van, and it says BlueExpress on the side. I know they have our package. I spring up from the bench and scramble. I am outside the driver's door before he's out. He's slightly taken aback, but I don't let him think twice - I say something to the effect of "GIMME MY PACKAGE NOW!" (in really bad Spanish). Amazingly, he does.
And with that, we have a stove again.
We are mobile again.
We are travellers, and not fools hanging around for an entire month in a touristy place where most people look at them with dollar signs in their eyes. (It's late and we need to pack for Bolivia. Otherwise I'd ramble on about the treatment we got from some business owners around San Pedro de Atacama...)
The world is back in balance. (Well, my country back home is in serious international turmoil but let's focus on the trip for now)
In the words of the great Peter Allen from All That Jazz - "Everything Old is New Again"
End of story. We are out of San Pedro de Atacama ASAP - i.e. tomorrow morning.
Next stop: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
Something we´ve been wanting to do for a while is share our reading lists. So here goes:
- 2 B R 0 2 B - Kurt Vonnegut
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
- The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
- Various short stories by H.P. Lovecraft
- The Art of Deception - Kevin Mitnick
- The daily UK newspaper the Independent, which we got a paid subscription for and it has since been wirelessly delivered to our Kindles. Two gripes with this: One, the Kindle edition has very few pictures (and sometimes the article refers to the picture that's not there). And two, they buried a letter I sent them (you will have to scroll down for "The myth of big, fat Greek wages") complaining for the patently false claim of one of their staff (Patrick Cockburn) who had the nerve to write that the Greek crisis is happening partially due to "wages ballooning" after the country joined the Euro. Honestly.
- The Greatest Show on Earth - Richard Dawkins
- Walking - Henry David Thoreau
- The Cloud Garden - Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder
- Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
- The Goulag Archipelago - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- Human Error - James Reason
- Lots and lots of Wikileaks-related material
- Why I write - George Orwell
- The Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman
- Approaching Zero - Paul Mungo & Bryan Glough
- Mr Tompkins in Wonderland, Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom - George Gamow
- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
- The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere´s Fan by Oscar Wilde
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
- Just Patty, When Patty Went to College, Jerry Junior, Daddy-Long-Legs, Dear Enemy, The Four-Pools Mystery by Jean Webster
- My Man Jeeves, Right Ho Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
- What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge
- Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne's House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside by LM Montgomery
- A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
- Unauthorised Autobiography by Julian Assange
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
- Once on a Time by AA Milne
- Chile - Culture Smart! by Caterina Perrone
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
San Pedro, the most touristy place we´ve been so far. We show up from the mountains, having cycled 300 km in four days and climbed over a 3400m pass, so we´re not quite prepared for the surreal "quaintness" of the place. Even the bank has its logo engraved in a wooden sign. Bobos everywhere, hiking gear galore, touts for restaurants, extortionate prices, the lot.
We even have trouble ordering food - we order "chorillana for two" and are impressed by the amount of food we get...
...only to be defeated, realising that ONE chorillana is for two people and our waitress is probably on drugs for having interpreted our sign language as "yes, please, bring us food for 4 people".
We find a campsite for a decent price not too close to the centre of the village, the only glitch being the annoying hostess looking at us with dollar signs in her eyes (e.g. trying to squeeze 500 pesos for the privilege of using a power socket for a few hours)
We have problems to solve. Our petrol stove is broken, we have come to realise we really do need a windscreen for it (as it gets windy around here and then cooking is an ordeal), and I have recently killed the Camelbak by dropping it off a speeding bike. We order parts for the stove and a 10Lt water bag to replace the Camelbak. The clock starts ticking, the most critical delivery being only "5 working days" away. Having time to kill, being unable to cook and therefore to travel, we start exploring around the village of San Pedro de Atacama.
First trip was to the north, Devil´s Canyon...
... a tunnel, archaelogical ruins we never quite found but good practice for our sand riding skills.
There has always been something about sand that freaked me out, particularly since I´ve been riding heavy motorcycles, but on a bicycle things are simpler - just keep the handlebars as straight as possible and pedal like your life depended on it.
We explore, perhaps a little bit too much, trying to make the best of the place and our time.
We get tired, we push, we get lost, a bit grumpy, but we get there... wherever "there" happens to be.
There is a little pushing and pulling involved, but the canyons are good fun to explore.
A river crossing that we did not attempt on the bikes, following the traditional method instead:
Somewhere along our meanderings we checked the odometer...
2000km on the saddle, and still no saddle sores. We must be taking our time, or have fantastic saddles! (My vote goes in for the former)
We take a day off to read in the tent and catch up on sleep (we really don´t sleep enough when we travel - less than 11 hours a day - you can´t really call this "vacation").
Next day we explore the Valley of Death (catchy names around here...) where we again negotiate sandy tracks and do some serious pushing to get to a vantage point to enjoy a solitary, peaceful sunset over the canyon... when a van full of tourists show up. Trying to see the positive side of this I should say it feels good that we are here with our bikes and had made it on our own, and not paid to be chauffered there.
Next day we visit Laguna de Cejar, 35km south of San Pedro de Atacama, which is a complex of 2-3 small lakes which, judging by the screams of people swimming in them, are quite cold. The approach is nice and sandy and keeps us entertained.
We lie next to the lake (there are shady spots) and read our Kindles, befriending lizards
... enjoying the beauty
...and wait for the afternoon wind to properly pick up. When a proper sandstorm breaks out, we hop onto the bikes and merrily pedal the 35km back, with our eyes, nostrils and mouths full of sand.
Oh the fun. We are rewarded with bizarre cloud formations
and receive the 10Lt Ortlieb water bag we had ordered from Santiago three days ago, which pushes our water carrying capacity to over 20Lt.
(of course water is heavy, hence Ping is scratching her head wondering who the heck is going to carry all this)
Another day off (we have the perfect excuse to be lazy: "We´re waiting for stuff to arrive by post") and then a trek (hiking, walking, call it what you like) in the Valley of the Moon. This one is slightly more adventurous than we expect - we get a bit lost in the maze of salt hills and sand dunes...
we listen to the slow creaking of the salt rocks...
... do some leap-of-faith climbing (some of us merrier than others)
find ourselves in caves that after crawling through pitch black passages prove to be dead ends
...so we have to climb back out...
...a little bit exhausted after 6 hours of all this
...but in the end, we make it out of there with a feeling of accomplishment.
Generally, excellent fun (in retrospect).
By this point we start running out of close range options so we bite the bullet and book a tourist tour to the El Tatio geysers. I hope you like this photo because I got up at 3:30am to take it.
Now, geysers are supposed to be volcanic phenomena: an underground water stream is met with volcanic super-hot elements which both put pressure on the soil and water and lead to extreme temperature differences, creating a supposedly spectacular natural phenomenon - natural steaming water fountains. This is not a scientific explanation, just my layman´s interpretation of what´s going on.
The reason I don´t have a scientific explanation, is that our guide doesn´t speak English - annoying, that, when we´ve paid a good amount of money for a tour in English... So after yawning with excitement at the geysers, marvelling at the local flora at a microscopic level
... piling on top of each other in a small cold puddle they call a "thermal bath", being taken to a village-that-would-not-be-there-were-it-not-for-the-tourists-paying-$4-for-a-chewy-llama-kebab we are driven back to San Pedro, over another 200km of bone-jittering unpaved roads that limit our poor driver to only 90km/h.
At least the cacti are pretty.
Bizarre how some people balance stones.
It all feels a little bit better after getting a partial refund without too much hassle.
At this point we are quite fed up with San Pedro de Atacama and decide to move out and spend a few days out in the Salar de Atacama - the part of the desert that is designated as a "Salt Lake". We combine this with a visit to Laguna Chaxa, a lake some 60km south of San Pedro de Atacama that is rumoured to attract many flamingos.
So we pedal via Toconao south and then the wind picks up and then we enter the Salar de Atacama and then we pedal west and then the wind picks up some more and at some point Ping politely suggests we stop and camp if I still value my life. So we stop.
It is not the most hospitable of terrains; even getting the bikes and all the equipment to a spot that is actually campable (i.e. we can set up the tent without it being shredded to pieces) is a small struggle.
In any case we set up our tent and call it a night.
Next morning we get up late (after all the effort of the previous day...) and pretty much spend the entire day reading in the tent. We manage to venture about 2km away to the lake to ask the ranger what the best time to visit is - he says 8am and warns us it is very cold. We say "fine" and turn to leave, which somehow distresses him - he stops us to ask why are we not visiting now, and we say "we'll come tomorrow, too much sun now". Disbelieving us, he says goodbye.
The following morning we get there at 08:45. The ranger is so impressed to see us there with the bikes that he does not take our money and instead conspiratorily waves us in.
O Laguna Chaxa, with your fleeting pink flamingos
(which we would need serious zoom lens to capture)
...and your much less fleeting (but also cute) mice.
No shade though, so we walk around, fill our water bag and leave.
Camping out there on the Salar de Atacama is less hospitable than you might think. Forget the lunar landscape and the fact the ground is salt rock. Temperatures INSIDE the tent range from -1 Celcious at 8am in the morning to +43 Celcious around 4pm. Inside the tent, the sun is so strong that we have to have our hats on. And the unrelenting wind does us no good, as it brings so much sand with it that we have to have the tent fly shut, lest we lose all our equipment under a layer of sand...
As usual with these things, the beauty of the landscape and the calm of the early morning are a partial compensation, but we still decide to move out.
Leaving Huasco, we left behind the first hotel we stayed in so far this trip...it is so lovely to sleep on a bed, and not have to do contortionist acts just to get dressed in the morning.
On sound advice from our friends in La Serena, we decided to take the coastal road from Huasco north (rather than the highway again). We were assured that we would see plenty of the desert flowers phenomenon there. In fact, people around the country take time off just to travel through to see this - given that it only happens in particularly rainy years. Although I enjoyed cycling on quiet (paved! Hooray!) roads, I must say though, the best bit was actually a few days back where we camped right outside of La Serena. All in all though, I counted 18 types of flowers - not quite the 800 species that the signs at the national parks told us about, but I was pleased with myself!
There were some helpful signs to tell us what else to look out for along the road...
Sadly we came across our first bit of rain on the trip...note the drip of water from my rear mirror...Luckily it was really only a drizzle (we´re used to much more back home!) and did not last more than the morning.
We didn´t stop much along the coast. Went through a ghost town (Puerto Viejo) to refuel. It was scarily quiet and empty. Everything was shut. The roads were deserted and the houses boarded up. Could not figure out what was going on at all. In the end a lady took pity on us (as the dogs were barking our arrival), came out and took us to a shop that she knew, banged on the door and we managed to get supplies that way. Bizarre.
The discrepancy of these houses to those we have seen in cities and rich areas emphasizes the wealth gap between people. We even spotted ingenious ways of building...must be kinda cool to step into the ground floor of the house, aka the truck!
On further cycling we met our first fellow cyclist this trip. A Chileano! He was just doing a short hop for three days...but I´m sure he had almost as much stuff with him as we did for six months!! This shows the typical scenery from those days...fairly empty roads, and not much sunshine on the coast.
We arrived at Bahia Inglesa after three days of free-camping, to an actual organised campsite with hot showers!! Hooray! It really makes you appreciate being clean...
With all this cycling, we still had much of the north to cover, and time is running short for us. We had set an articifical limit for ourselves to turn southwards by the end of October. At this rate we are not going to make it. We had some serious soul-searching to do. Should we, or should we not...cheat???
We decided that it was the only way that we could cover some distance quickly. After being cold-shouldered by the bus companies - who said that we couldn´t get bikes on the buses - we rode to the side of the motorway, stuck our thumbs out, and crossed our fingers! Truck after truck went by. The drivers honked, and shrugged their shoulders. They looked genuinely sorry that they could not help - especially the huge petrol tanks! One actually stopped, was going almost to our final destination 8 hours away...walked round and round his truck and scratched his head to see if he could tie the bikes on somehow. Alas it was not to be. After only half an hour of trying, we managed to get a ride. The guy spoke no English, and our Spanish is poor. He chucked his son behind the seat to make room for us! Both looked at us curiously but did not attempt much conversation. We did not think to get a proper picture before he left us in Chañaral - 80km away - a full day´s ride for us.
Whilst I was dancing about at the side of the road, waiting with crossed fingers for another ride, Alejandro the truck driver was having a nice old chat with a mate and noticed us. They whistled us over and soon both Alex and Alejandro were circling the truck again to see how we could get the bikes on. This was a HUGE truck. He was carrying a pre-fabricated house up north. Each of these cost about 20000 pounds apparently...and the guys who commission these will build a town with them...who has the money to build these??
We managed to squeeze the bikes in front of the house and hopped on.
Alex sat in the front, with a beady eye in the wing mirror on the bikes, whilst I sat on Alejandro´s bed behind the driver´s seat!
As these drivers spend a few days on the road at a time, they have a bed, a toilet, and a gas stove! Alejandro was a chatty driver, and through many gesticulations we managed to have a conversation. We spent about 2 hours on the road before he pulled over to bed down for the night, at a truckers´ stop on the side of the road. We toddled off with the bikes and found a spot to put up our tents - hoping against hope that the truckers will be able to see the reflective strips in the night and not run us over!!
In the morning we missed our alarm, and instead of the normal 2 hours to pack up and go, we had 45min before Alejandro was leaving again. Let me tell you, we have never moved so fast!!
We did it however, and I was rewarded with a cup of hot coffee in the truck as he boiled the kettle again just for me! Another three hours or so passed. Our Spanish was getting more and more impressive. We talked about our families, jobs, the global financial crisis and unemployment, politics between China and Taiwan (!)... Amazing how much we can understand with a phrasebook and a sympathetic ear (who kept turning around and looking at me and not the road - but showed his skill avoiding huge potholes in the roads with the truck!)
We were set down at La Negra, a worker´s town. We tried to find a shop to buy bread and milk. Nada (nothing). There were just huge trucks and mining plants. All the workers are fed in their canteens, and needed for nothing. The only food shops sold junk food such as cookies and cakes, fizzy pop (they´re very fond of those here, there´s just about every colour under the sun!) I saw the biggest tyres in the world at the petrol station!
We pedalled to the coast - Antofagasta - the second largest city in Chile, to rest and refuel. The next day, headed back inland to start our journey to the Atacama Desert proper. The first bit was s-t-e-e-p. On that first day, we managed to ride about 80km and up 1200m in elevation. Quite an achievement with 40kg of bike and luggage, I think! We passed through the Tropic of Capricorn...
The desert view was quite something. The vastness made me feel very insignificant indeed. Kind of like the feeling that I get by the roaring sea.
Camping every night out on the desert was lovely. The stars were incredible. With our new-found knowledge from the Mamalluca observation tower tour in Vicuña, and Google Skymaps, we enjoyed pointing to stars and trying to figure it all out.
It wasn´t easy to find shelter from the sun in the desert. Every now and again there would be a monument to someone who had unfortunately died on the road, or a shack for water pipelines, or even a large advertising sign. We´d hide in the shade for a few minutes and have our lunch or a snack bar, before braving the sun again. This kind trucker let us hide behind his truck whilst he did some essential repairs.
He also made sure that we had enough water before heading off again. Everyone takes care of each other out here. I was very aware of our water consumption, and how quickly I felt thirsty again. Trying to ration water was just not possible and we pedalled hard to get to the next refuelling stops. We arrived at Calama on day 3 and made sure all our bottles and water bags were full. It took us about an hour to fill and filter all this!! Sadly, not long after this picture was taken, the Camelbak died an untimely death, having fallen from the bike and split open. That´s 3 litres and counting!!!
Another sad event - our stove broke. On our final day on the road we had a cold supper :-(
The biggest problem now is to find a replacement or replacement parts...
Just before arriving in San Pedro there is a fantastic downhill for a few kilometres...it was a job to keep an eye on the road and enjoy the view as we sped our way down...
This place is also not flat like the other bits of desert we´d travelled through...
Four days later we finally arrived at San Pedro de Atacama. We had cycled 80-90km every day...uphill! The drivers on the roads were generally friendly, and frequently honked to show support (some trucks have such a loud honk that it frequently scares me off the road!!) Some people took pity and spontaneously offered us lifts. One fantastic driver gave us an entire packet of our favourite cookies out of his window of his moving car!
Here´s an interview of me whilst cycling...it was a bit impromptu and I had no time to think about a script...
San Pedro is the most touristy place we´d been to yet. It´s supposed to also be one of the most expensive places in Chile - after Santiago. Unfortunately we have to stay a few days to sort out the water carrying and stove issues. One thing we have found out - there is very little outside of Santiago - there are adventure shops here, being a touristy, adventure place, but shopkeepers shake their heads sadly and say "Santiago" when we ask about stoves and large water bags. Hmmmmm, only a 24hour bus ride away. We´ve ordered some parts from the UK - only to be told afterwards that one merchant sent something which took a month to get to Chile. Still considering what the best option is. In the meantime, today we´re having a chilled day. Finally. I´ve even put on a skirt so no cycling for a few more hours anyway!!
Episode IV: Tongoy, La Serena, Vicuña and reaching Region III
Leaving behind Lorraine and Bob we hit the Panamericana (Ruta 5)
with its sometimes ridiculously long trucks...
and did some serious pedalling northwards.
We would cycle all day, find some half-hidden stealth camping spot, a beach or a defunct camping site and spend the night there, then in the morning pack up and hit the road again.
Stealth camping is sort of necessary in such areas, where all the land
around the highway is fenced and marked as private. There are very few
to no other options for travelling cyclists. Some say you can camp (and shower) in
or stay in highway motels (there are very few), but what if you find such a motel at noon? No more travelling that day? Doesn´t really work for cycling.
So stealth camping it was. We would pedal for most of the day and when
we were ready to stop we would spend 10-20 minutes scouting the place
and we would always find something suitable.
After three days on the highway averaging 70km a day and travelling at
we reached sleepy Tongoy.
Tongoy is a small fishing village south of Coquimbo. We camped in an organised camping (which by that time was a sort of luxury, with running, if cold, water and all that...) and spent a full day in the Ciber (Internet cafe) of the village catching up with you, our favourite readers, and generally tending to our online lives. (Ping asked me to give you the precise number: we spent 7 hours on the keyboards)
... we quickly reached Coquimbo which is quite nondescript,
apart from a lovely beach stretch of 8km which we cycled. It included
a burning stranded ship
as well as lots and lots of now shut bars and
restaurants (because it´s not a tourist season at the moment), all the way to La Serena with its colourful malls and yummy fast food options:
(luckily NOT really representative of La Serena)
In La Serena we were hosted by Michal, who was kind enough
to have us for a couple of days. We weren´t planning to stay as long,
but he threw a homewarming party that weekend. His colleagues were a
rather select crowd:
A French biologist explained to us how the tonnes of oestrogen that
reach the rivers and seas (eg from contraception pills and through the
human body) affect marine organisms and even leading to massive scale
sex changes, disturbing the natural balance of entire species.
Apparently a very few countries have invested in biological filters
for human waste before it reaches the water supply (eg by cultivating
microorganisms that feed on oestrogen-like hormones) but these are the
exception rather than the rule.
An Argentinian paleoecologist explained to us how they study the last
20.000 years of climate change in trying to predict the future of
Earth's climate, adjusting for the major human distrurbance to the
natural climate cycle since the Industrial Revolution. They "core" the
bottom of lakes or the desert (ie they drill deep in the ground and
retrieve samples of material like fossilised pollen). The deeper you
dig, the further back in time you can look by analysing the material
A Polish glacierologist explained to us the practical applications of
knowing how human activity affects glaciers. What are the effects of
expanding a mining facility in the Andes?
...and so on. The night went on and on with conversations during which
we usually had our mouths open while listening to the hardcore
scientists describing their research and interests.
After such a party and the ensuing sleep deprivation we just had to
rest for a day. We got some cool clip-on sunglasses for Ping
...visited the very cool archaelogical museum of La Serena
...and then headed east to the Elqui Valley and the small town of Vicuña.
It was a 60km ride which was easy enough to do in a day, gently
gaining us 600m of elevation from seaside La Serena to Vicuña.
At this point I realise we haven´t described a typical day, so here´s
something to give you an idea:
Wake up around 09:00, have breakfast (cereal with milk or sandwiches or bread with butter and honey) and pack up (tent, mattresses, sleeping bags etc).
We are usually ready to ride around 11:00. We usually ride till 18:30
unless we have reached our destination earlier. We take breaks to rest before/after/during particularly bad uphills and usually a quick snack break
and a less quick lunch break.
Lunch consists of sandwiches prepared on the spot. Bread,
butter/avocado, some sort of meat, some cheese, perhaps a tomato,
perhaps some fruit and cookies or honey.
(representative sandwich with the improved & healthier avocado alternative follows)
Snack is usually a cereal bar and/or cookies or fruit.
When we get to our camping spot for the night we first set up the tent
together, then Ping starts chopping things for dinner and I do the
bedding in the tent (mattresses to pump up etc). Then I get the petrol
stove going, boil the water for rice/pasta etc.
Ping prepares the meal while I potter around the tent, lock bikes, filter water, polish my nails and generally do anything that needs doing.
(lots of water bottles to fill every day)
We then eat (usually sitting in the tent´s porch), then wash the
dishes (if we have enough water, otherwise I attack the leftovers with
bread or sand or paper of anything at hand), then do our teeth and
then get in the tent. Usually a bit of reading is all we can muster
before falling into a deep slumber.
== END OF ROUTINE==
In Vicuña we visited the excellent Observatorio Astronomico Mamalluca.
You get there at night (after 9pm) using a cool airport runway-like
approach with LEDs in which all cars turn off their lights to minimise
light pollution and then if you´re lucky get a great tour of the night
sky in English by Señor Luis Traslaviña. His enthusiasm was contagious
and he taught us much about reading the sky. Well worth the visit.
Picture of the moon on that very night with my compact camera through a telescope:
Next day we took a day trip (for the first time!) - we left our
panniers behind in the campsite in Vicuña and with feather-light bikes
we cycled to Pisco Elqui, a supposedly quaint little village at 1200m
elevation in the Elqui Valley.
Suffice it to say that the village is not worth visiting and the ride there was the best part of the 80km round trip.
The next day we returned to La Serena and stayed with Michal once
more. We ate like lions for dinner (three hearty mains between Ping
and myself!) and slept very well.
Leaving La Serena behind we headed north on the Panamericana.
Interestingly it´s not a motorway any longer, just a regular
single-lane country road really. Which meant it was easy to spot a
lovely field of desert flowers and just hop off the Panamericana...
...and camp there for two nights because it was, well, so lovely!
By "desert flowers" we refer to the phenomenon of patches of desert
(we´re talking proper sand, cacti, vultures etc) bursting with the
prettiest, most colourful little flowers. In thousands and
thousands... This happens once every few years when the season has
been very wet. So we´re particularly lucky because we have had no rain
to speak of (only one day in Valparaiso) and we get the benefits of
the past rain (the beauty of a flowering desert).
Carrying on north we visited the Humboldt Penguin Nature Reserve (a
group of islands with interesting fauna), which hit me as a not
particularly pleasant experience because of the whole haggling and
negotiating involved to arrange the "boat tour". In any case, we were
lucky enough to be flanked by a group of dolphins
and we saw some sea lions that were even less active than those outside Valparaiso. Apparently they hunt at night and sleep in the day.
After a beautiful seaside morning walk in which we witnessed little guys thriving against all odds
we left our expensive camping behind. "We" then decided that we should take a shortcut. Instead of going out all the way to the Panamericana (east, then north, then west), we should "just go north" from the secondary (tertiary, really) roads that looked to connect Punta de Choros (where we were) to Huasco (where we
wanted to be).
We thus entered Region de Atacama.
The road was lovely at first...
and the camping spots so beautiful it was difficult to pick one...
Little did we know that it would become a two-day mini Odyssey, with
serious constant off-road
followed by broken tarmac & sand downhills.
We found ourselves pushing the bikes uphill in the midday sun, with
legs and arms shaking with tiredness.
We ran out of water and food and
had to ask for supplies at the few houses and mining settlements we
It was by the end of the 2nd day, in the mining settlement of
... that we stopped to ask for some water and the road ahead,
after having been repeatedly let down by both paper and digital maps
of the area (maps versus reality did not work to our favour - the dark red semi-circle did not exist on the map as we discovered)
... that we met Señor German Gomez. After filling our water tanks he was about
to leave the site and had begun to drive off when I asked whether we
could buy any food there. He said no, gave me the characteristic "hang
on, I´ll sort this out" gesture and disappeared.
After a couple of minutes we noticed someone in full chef attire rushing across the misty mining settlement into a building with the sign "casino" outside. German then said get in there and there will be food, bid his farewell and left.
We walked in and to our surprise were treated to freshly prepared
sandwiches, fruit juice, tea, coffee AND dessert to fill us up and warm us. We
needed it at the time because even though the mountains had been very
hot and we had been swimming in our sweat all day long...
... as one approaches the ocean the fog gathers and creates very cool and wet
areas and our last hour of riding had been thus. When we got up and
asked to pay, we were given two plastic bags with even more food
(sandwitches, fruit, biscuits, juice) and told we couldn´t pay
anything because it was all taken care of by Señor German.
What can I say? We just left a token note of thanks with our names and
this blog address, hoping that he will someday look at it and get
someone to translate this part to Spanish.
Señor German, muchos gracias!
With our hearts swelling with the warmth of human kindness we pedalled on to
the C-526 road, camped in a field for the night, not quite having a full
dinner as we were now overly cautious with our supplies and didn´t
know how different the road ahead would be compared to what we could see on
the map, and went to bed.
The next day we arrived in Huasco to find that we were out of money,
and after three days of free camping in the mountains and serious
pedalling we needed a warm shower and to wash our clothes... But the
single local bank´s ATM is not compatible with the Visa or Mastercard
network, so we could not take out any money.
We checked in to our first hotel of the trip and with some of our last
pesos I bought a bus ticket to Vallenar, the biggest city one hour´s
drive away. I found a compatible ATM, got out money, did some shopping
and headed back to Huasco. That night we had an expensive (by our
standards) meal in a proper restaurant in Huasco. There were many
expats there. It was busy and noisy. The food was relatively elaborate
and quite expensive. Children were screaming. Customers were
demanding. The sole waitress was under a lot of stress. We sat there,
looking around us... it just felt wrong. After three days in the
mountains, after refilling our water bladders from people´s water
reservoirs, after being given food for the road, after being slightly
lost, very dusty and tired, after having rationed our food and water
consumption to ensure we could make it, this rough landing back to
"civilisation" just felt... wrong.
I am writing this in an Internet cafe in Huasco. Beat music is
blaring, people are walking past, the neon light is keeping the place
lit. I miss the simplicity of our tent. I miss the inevitability of
stopping to rest, anywhere on the mountain, of cooking essential food
and focusing on the fundamentals: Our health, our psychology,
protection from the sun and the cold and having water, food and fuel
I look forward to jumping back in this simplicity, as we will travel
through Region III of Chile: Region de Atacama.
We might be a while before we can spend an entire day in an Internet
cafe again, but we should be able to use email in areas with cell
phone coverage. I hope the pictures and whatever short stories we
manage to put down with words under our constant time pressure make
your wait a worthwhile one.
During our last meal in Valparaiso, we discussed culinary excellence throughout the world. I related how during our travels as a family we would eat almost exclusively in Chinese restaurants. El Profesor, Emanuele, told us a story of disastrous pasta experiences on top of a mountain in Peru "because water does not boil at 100 degrees at high altitude and anything less is clearly sacrilege." Alex agreed with him that In both Greece and Italy, foreign restaurants do badly, because the locals will only go once in a blue moon, just to verify that their own food was still the best in the world. With much laughter, we agreed that it was almost impossible for El Profesor to become vegetarian in Chile, and that it was time for all of us to start discovering the delights of palta- avocado - which by the way I've seen sold 4kg for £1.30!!
With a tear in our eye we left behind El Profesor in Valparaiso and continued further up the coast, towards our next destination - La Ballena (the Whale).
Wildlife is a-plenty in Chile, we were not quite two minutes out of Valparaiso before we saw these sea lions lazing on an offshore platform - and a few more trying to squeeze in!!
We meandered slowly around the point, on the coastal road,
stopping in various beautiful places to have lunch with pelicans and such like...
and camped wherever they would have us (or not notice us, or not throw us off the land...)
This fantastic view from our tent we had to give up, when the owner of that bit of the beach decided that it was too much responsibility for us to camp on his land :-(
The first night after we left Valparaiso, we cycled arduously up a (steep) hill toward what we thought was a campsite, to find that it wasn´t...and that the guy who lived the house on the corner of the road was NOT open to campers, despite having what looked like "free-for-all" land next to his property. So we thought about leaving - for a brief moment, but then decided that as the sun was going down and no one could see us, we would just pitch our tent behind a bush - and fill up our water bag with a tap from the half-finished property next door!! Resourceful - one might say...
The next day, we rose early (for a change), and scarpered fast!! (Well, 9am...but hey, that´s early for us!)
Further along the coast, we came to Zapallar - where the elite of Santiago have their summer houses...it was muchos posh indeed. We spied a bush full of hummingbirds, which made me very excited...they really look very cute with their little wings flapping away.
There were more builders than houseowners in the area whilst we were there - obviously all the houseowners were having work done during the winter whilst they were away. And a LOT of dogs very interested in our comings and goings -which I was unsure about! At least I had my rabies vaccine before I left!!
As the beach clearly stated "No picnic" - we figured that camping was also out of the question - so we "stealth-camped" in a little park area next to the beach - there was an amphitheatre-like bit with seating around a platform - not quite the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, but I could imagine plays being performed there in the trees.
Again in the morning, we actually set an alarm, got up early, packed all our stuff away before having a leisurely breakfast by the sea. An old German guy came by whilst we did so and lamented over the youth of today...relying on family money, and travelling on Daddy´s wallet...
This was the first day that we travelled on the Panamericana Ruta 5. A road we would come to love and hate! Alex was "loving it" at this point...the bit sticking out from his shades is a rear-view mirror. Very handy!!
Lunch spots on Ruta 5 are not easy to come by, but this one was beautiful...sadly I managed to lose a contact lens whilst munching...and now I´m cycling with one eye shut...
We stopped at Pichicuy that night, only 8km down the road from our next hosts, and camped on the beach - our first attempt at it. I learned that cycling on sand was not possible...at least for me!
It was a lovely evening, and of course a beautiful setting...
Doing the washing up with sand and good ol' sea water was actually fun!
We loved our first beach camping experience...
the only minor detail is that we weren´t sure how high the tides would get. Alex drew two battle lines in the sand with the sea...and dared the tides to cross it... No match against Mother Nature, we lost both by the morning.
Here´s Alex doing the obligatory "tent dance" (i.e. cleaning the inside of the tent) as we´re packing up to go.
The next day, we arrived at Lorraine and Bob´s place in La Ballena - they kindly offered an open invitation for travellers on the HorizonsUnlimited forum, and we took them at their word! The access was not particularly easy for me to negotiate -although Alex seemed to have few problems...
Lorraine´s house is a beautiful wooden hut perched over the Pacific. The sunsets were unbeatable.
When we arrived there was some uncertainty over the amount of water available - That area is not connected to the water network so people use water tanks.And the delivery had not arrived that day! Just another reminder of a luxury we city folk take for granted! One way to get around this is to dig a well on your own property - not cheap, and there is an amazing tale of how to find water under the ground...my scientific brain does not wholly believe it, but I am assured that it does not fail - in the right hands!!
Lorraine and Bob had five dogs around to keep them company,
dogs are a-plenty in this country...We learned to love them - even whilst they begged pitifully for food at the table!!
Dinner the first night was stir-fry, with broccoli - hooray!! Those who have lived with me know that I can´t live without my broccoli...two weeks was too long...
We stocked up on supplies in the nearby town of La Ligua on our first day - the first town that we´ve been to which is not huge, but manageable on foot, and enjoyed a couple of empanadas (just the same as cornish pasties, in my book!). I was highly amused by the fact that every sauce-type thing in this country appears to be sold in packets - including mayonnaise, ketchup, jams etc...
Well. I thought it was funny!
My keen doctor´s eyes also spied this magic mix which appears to make people with diabetes into this lovely lady with a funny picture on her tummy...beware!!
A tough day´s shopping later, what better way to relax than with a pisco sour with the lady of the house on her veranda?
On our second, even lazier day, after eating our hosts out of house and home (we ate at least a half kilo of toast that morning)...
Alex flexed his muscles by doing the first bit of bike maintenance of the trip...WD40 - what a fabulous invention!!
Then we went searching for sea lions in Los Molles...and broke down in Bob´s Peruvian truck (long story)...and needed rescuing by kind neighbour Wayne (who had already had us round to his fabulous house for dinner the night before)
Thus endeth our adventures with Bob and Lorraine.
Onwards, adventurers!!! To the North!
(Our lasting memory of La Ballena - the seven ferocious furballs who chased us down the lane as we pedalled madly away...)
Leaving the very down-to-earth Santiago (a bizarre introduction to Chile indeed)...
we took the road NW from Pedro's place to avoid central Santiago. Instead, we took the road via the mountains, through Chicureo, Lampa and Tiltil.
I´ll attempt to let the photos tell the story here.
One of the advantages of mountain roads is that after the uphills (that invariably make us suffer on our 30+ kg bikes), there are smashing downhills:
The road was mostly flat for most of the day, but by late afternoon-ish I got a polite reminder by Ping that she´s rather had enough. "I am stopping HERE!" or something to that effect. We were in the middle of a mountain road, after having enquired in Tiltil and was told there was nowhere to stay (hotel, campsites etc). So what was I to do?
I approached a farm house that was nearby and with my extensive Spanish (and wild gesticulation) I asked the kind farmer if we could use his land to camp for one night. He said yes and opened the gate.
And thus we camped at Señor Manuel´s:
He was extremely attentive to us, introduced us to his dogs, brought out a broom and cleaned up the space we would camp on, brought out chairs and a table for us to use, he even helped me wash the dishes after the meal we prepared and shared with him.
The simplicity of opening his house to us, bringing us hot water in the morning, hanging out with us even though we had no common language, grinning to us with his almost toothless smile and his sparking eyes, reminded me of the beauty of travelling and mellowed me to Chile. Big cities are not the reason I travel. This is the reason:
The next morning we left Señor Manuel´s farm and carried on slogging it up the mountain. It was cold and a little bit damp, and the uphill seemed endless, until we arrived to the sunny region of Valparaiso.
From there on, a massive 15km downhill started that almost was the end of me... too steep, too fast, the brakes on our Surlys are too crap to deal with this (cantilevers for simplicity? I so wish I had disk brakes... try stopping a 30kg Long Haul Trucker - with me on it - zipping down the mountain for 15 minutes in cold/damp weather...)
By the bottom of the mountain we were both cold and exhausted, so we jumped in the first restaurant we found open (this is off-season after all). A helpful local kindly suggested we order the pork, so we asked for a portion of that, plus a couple of hot teas.
We were pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the food:
...which didn´t stop us trying to refill our salt supplies while we were at it.
You can tell we were super-happy to be somewhere warm, eating great food. We were laughing like kids!
Less than 15km away was Parque Nacional La Campana, where after an uphill offroad slog we pitched our tent for the night, being the sole visitors of the park.
It had a picnic table and toilets & showers with cold water. It was a good outdoors experience and we spent many relaxing hours reading, walking the trails of the park and conversing with the dog that attached itself to us for the two days we spent there.
Ping leaving P.N. La Campana
That morning was also a bit chilly so we didn´t think twice before stopping for a quick freshly-baked meat empanada. They bake them in such outdoors brick stoves - these things are seriously yummy and I suspect will form the basis of our Chilean diet for the months to come!
By the end of the day we had descended from the mountain onto the coast and were feeling the breeze of the Pacific on our faces for the first time since we landed in Chile 10 days ago... we had reached Viña del Mar and were on our way slightly south, to the buzzing cultural capital of the country, colourful Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is characterised by the many hills it´s built on. Each hill creates a district, and each district has its own character. There are many funicular-type lifts moving people up and down the steep hills:
Unfortunately ever since they were privatised, only a handful of lifts (the most profitable ones) remain operational.
In Valparaiso we were hosted by Emanuele, an Italian professor of criminal law and the inaugural member and president of our by now extensive fan club. We shall refer to him from now on as El Presidente or El Profesor.
Emanuele took us in at less than 12 hours´ notice and provided shelter, warmth and excellent company for the three days we spent in Valparaiso.
El Profesor with Ping, during our stroll through Valpo´s barrios (neighbourhoods):
One of the many rusty buildings of Valpo:
Colourful walls in Valpo:
Ping outside colourful shops - most of the city is painted like this.
Valpo rusty house and beautiful blue skies after a spell of torrential downpour which we luckily spent indoors:
During packing, I once more shed a tear for the extra bulk I carry... my synthetic sleeping bag on the left, Ping´s down sleeping bag on the right:
With El Profesor during (proper Italian) dinner:
If you don´t like dogs, South America is really *not* the place to be...
...and that was that for Valparaiso. We bid a hearty farewell to El Presidente and started skirting the coast. Destination? Anywhere north.
It´s taken a lot of planning (Thank you Alex), whilst I was frantically finishing off work and things, and suddenly it was time to get ourselves to the airport. Christos helped to weigh the bikes...
(didn´t work...), and then off we went.
We spent two hours in Heathrow just packing the bikes,
with my parents´ help...into two big plastic bags...Great way to transport luggage, plastic bags...
80 pounds (Sterling) later, off the bikes go to Santiago
Arrival in Santiago was fairly uneventful. The Chilean airport workers were quite interested in our bikes (especially when it took us another two hours to put the bikes back together and the panniers on),
and then off we cycled through busy Santiago
to our first host - Pedro - of warmshowers.org (a cycle touring network) who took us in with a big smile and open arms.
Pedro owns an amazing bike shop which is about 5 times bigger than the shop that we´d bought our bikes from, with everything a biker could possibly need under the sun...if we´d known, we´d have just gotten everything here!
We stayed in a rather posh area, about 500m from a "sports mall" where we browsed yachts (though didn´t find anything which fitted our criteria...)
kayaks, bikes, outdoors equipment, a climbing wall, a wave machine for surfers/wakeboarders to practise on...not quite what I was expecting of our first days in Chile anyway!
We did also walk around town, and saw some evidence of student protests, regarding education reforms in Chile, here's a huge banner that they put up in front of the university, for example. But we saw no trouble at all.
Day 2 in Santiago - a huge dump of snow...the city became white, people were throwing snowballs and trying to sledge down a slope with cardboard boxes...we hibernated in Pedro´s flat and kept warm!! It apparently never snows in Santiago...so I would have said that we brought it with us from London - except that it was lovely and warm when we left....
Day 3 - why not go skiing with all this fresh powder about? Valle Nevado, with fantastic powder, blue sky, warm sunshine...again, not quite what I was expecting of a cycle-tour, but hey, who´s complaining?? On the windy road up to the mountains, we saw some funny looking snow-hats for the cacti...
And here we are ready to go up the Andes...well, ok, the chair lift :-)
Alex nonchalantly going down an "expert slope"...
And the beautiful view from the top.
Finally we thought we should make a move...goodbye Pedro - we managed to leave the flat and cycle 62km (yes, I´m VERY proud of it...). This is at the beginning of the uphill part, saying goodbye to Santiago (you can tell it's the beginning as I was still smiling)
It would have been a shorter day, but when we reached Colina, our initial destination, and tried to find somewhere to stay, we were brought in front of the "policia" - and through sign language (sadly we don´t speak much Spanish) we established that there was no campsite OR hotels in this town (how is it possible!?!) Eventually our friendly policeman phoned a friend 25km away (!) and asked if we can camp in her backyard - behind the convenience store...´cos it was "safer" - well, if the police thinks so, who are we to argue?!
As it wasn't entirely planned, we arrived much later than we'd expected, in the dark. The Taiwanese instant noodles came to the rescue and we had a pretty good meal in the backyard!
Even though we had no common language with our impromptu hostess, Pilar, she opened her house to us, accepted no money and invited us to stay with her again on our way back from the North.
I ask you...is that not a crazy start to our adventures??
The very next day - Alex decided that he was far too cold in his sleeping bag
despite looking fairly cosy in this picture, and that we had to cycle back to Santiago (don't forget, 62km!!) to find him a down sleeping bag to match mine...It was 10km of uphill, and a heck of a lot of pain. Poor Pedro received a "help" text to host us again, to which a cool "no problem" reply was gratefully welcomed.
We found the Chilean prices far too expensive, however, over twice what I had paid in London, and so two pairs of warm socks and a pair of thermal trousers later (£40 rather than £400!!), off we went again, determined to REALLY LEAVE Santiago, and start exploring Chile.
By the way, if anyone would like to follow our twitter updates (get me! techno-tastic!), this is the link: http://twitter.com/cyclingchile
- as we can do it through the Kindle, it will be frequently updated!!
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'Sam Manicoms new book! is a gripping rollercoaster of a two-wheeled journey which takes you riding across some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. This enticing tale has more twists and turns than a Rocky Mountain Pass and more surprises than anyone would expect in a lifetime. There are canyons, cowboys, idyllic beaches, bears, mountains, Californian vineyards, gun-toting policemen with grudges, glaciers, exploding volcanoes, dodgy border crossings and some of the most stunning open roads that a traveller could ever wish to see.
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